Korean genre stylist Park Chan-wook is best known to Western audiences for his “Vengeance” trilogy: a trio of malevolent, blackly comic thrillers that included his 2003 breakout hit, “Oldboy.” But his recent films have coalesced into an informal trilogy of their own, linked by a shared enthusiasm for gothic atmospherics and erotic psychodrama.
After “Thirst” (Catholics, vampires) and the English-language “Stoker” (psychopaths, incest) comes “The Handmaiden,” a torrid suspense piece loosely based on Sarah Waters’ cod-Dickensian lesbian crime novel, “Fingersmith.” Park shifts the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, and his script, co-written with regular collaborator Jeong Seo-kyeong, teases the latent absurdity out of Waters’ tale.
Split into three parts, the film is initially narrated by Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a professional pickpocket who gets herself a job working as personal attendant to a wealthy Japanese heiress. Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) has been living in a secluded mansion under the watch of her Korean uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a collector of rare (and very racy) literature.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||145 mins|
|Language||Korean, Japanese (Japanese subtitles)|
This domineering relative has been planning to marry his niece for years, but Sook-hee aims to beat him to it by helping a male accomplice (Ha Jung-woo) seduce Lady Hideko while posing as a Japanese noble named Count Fujiwara. (A note of caution: Viewers who wince at clumsy Japanese dialogue may want to give this a miss.) Once they’re wed, “Fujiwara” plans to consign his spouse to a lunatic asylum and abscond with her fortune, giving Sook-hee a split of the spoils.
Things get complicated when Sook-hee develops a crush on her mistress, and finds her affections reciprocated. Convinced that Lady Hideko is a sexual innocent — and Kim’s languid, inscrutable performance doesn’t give much away at first — she offers to teach her a few tricks to use on her suitor, only for their tentative kisses to escalate into passionate lovemaking, spurred on by some awfully ripe dialogue (“Keep doing it like the Count would!”).
I’ll be honest: I laughed. The lesbian action in “The Handmaiden” may be transgressive by the standards of Korean cinema, but compared to Todd Haynes’ “Carol” it comes across as decidedly quaint. Park seems to view the sex scenes as an opportunity to arrange his protagonists’ lithe bodies into artful poses, rather than to reveal more of their characters. When he depicts Lady Hideko reading erotic literature from her uncle’s library to an audience of male “collectors,” it’s hard not to spot the parallel: They’re both just exercises in titillation.
That’s not to say that “The Handmaiden” isn’t seductive. Its rich textures recall Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak,” and Lady Hideko’s mansion — equal parts English country manor and traditional Japanese villa — is a character in itself. In the opening scenes, the camera sweeps and pans around it with over-caffeinated delirium, as if Park and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon can’t wait to take everything in. As the camerawork becomes less frantic, the film’s narrative picks up the momentum. “The Handmaiden” may not conceal any secrets as awful as “Oldboy,” but it’s an extravagantly contorted tale.
When Lady Hideko takes over the narration during the second part of the film, the chronology becomes more fluid, jumping backwards and forwards in time and replaying earlier scenes from different perspectives. It’s all very entertaining, even if Park is guilty of over-egging the drama: While keeping the central twist from Waters’ book, he diminishes it with the fresh revelations introduced later on.
Stretched over a tortuous (but never tedious) 145 minutes, “The Handmaiden” may be the silliest offering to date from a filmmaker who’s never been big on restraint. There’s clearly an audience for this kind of high-concept erotic twaddle, but if Park changes tack for his next film, I won’t complain. He’s having fun here; he’s also only a few shades away from E.L. James.