Sex, violence, plot twists, semi-gratuitous sadomasochistic motifs, gorgeous but forbidding visual compositions, metronomic pacing, discomfiting gothic atmosphere. Most, if not all, of director Park Chan-wook’s features bear these hallmarks. They’re the foundation on which his reputation rests, for better or worse, and Park’s The Handmaiden is of a piece with such previous pics as Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. The new film fits into his filmography like a Ben Wa ball fits into – oh, never mind. As the saying goes: People who enjoy this sort of thing will undoubtedly find this sort of thing to their liking.
What does The Handmaiden have for the rest of us, the curious passersby who are not generally fanatical about Park one way or another? There’s the political angle. The action is set in Korea in the Thirties, during the Japanese occupation. Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a fantastically rich but emotionally troubled young Japanese noblewoman, lives in an elaborately creepy mansion with her oddball Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Plotting to deceive Hideko and relieve her of her fortune is the playboy Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who procures as his accomplice Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), daughter of a family of pickpockets and hustlers. Her job is to infiltrate the family as Hideko’s maid and thus help transition the fragile heiress from the grand house to the madhouse.
The period of Japanese rule (1910–1945) was a time of hardship and humiliation for the Korean people. Large numbers of Koreans gave themselves Japanese names on orders from their imperial masters. The movie’s main characters are not entirely what they seem to be. Each one hides at least one secret. Trickery and multiple layers of identity are the order of the day. Director Park adapted the screenplay with regular collaborator Chung Seo-Kyung from a novel by Sarah Waters, a Welsh novelist who specializes in lesbian romances with Victorian settings. And so we’re watching a melodrama of personal treachery complicated by camouflaged identities and clandestine sexual habits, as well as by the Korean hatred of their cruel Japanese overlords. Park goes so far as to helpfully color-code the subtitles: white for Korean, yellow for Japanese.
In the role of Miss Izumi Hideko, the presumed mark, veteran Korean actress Kim Min-hee (Helpless) exhibits a delicate doll-like beauty, the perfect cover for a stifled heart consumed by desire for vengeance. The “V” word is filmmaker Park’s habitual favorite narrative device, in this case providing an excuse for lengthy flashbacks of enchanted gardens, a hanged auntie, and the black-tongued uncle’s Sade-istic literary events — he teaches his young niece to read, just to have her recite pornography. Is it any wonder that, having been used so wantonly, Hideko comes to prefer the company of her innocent little thief of a handmaid? Meanwhile, Park lays on the costumed extravagance, soft-core canoodling, bondage set pieces, and vials of opium as titillating filler. He’s probably the pre-eminent flogger of ostentatious grotesquery in film today, against fierce competition.
When we first discovered Park’s work in such films as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Thirst, his eye-poppingly weird tableaux made sense as embellishment on his themes. But that was then. Now, even the most sensational sequences in The Handmaiden — e.g., the frenzied female coupling that outdoes Blue Is the Warmest Color for sheer physical intensity — fail to do much more than disrupt the plot line. We’ve grown accustomed to his peccadilloes. Better to contemplate Hideko and Sookee in our imaginations, alone together at last, in their bed aboard a cruise ship crossing a romantic moonlit sea, than to peek behind the stateroom door for one final household appliance demo. It’s a matter of taste.