In a masterful feat of adaptation and reinvention, South Korean provocateur Park Chan-Wook transports Sarah Waters’s Victorian-era novel Fingersmith to colonial Korea under the Japanese occupation with The Handmaiden. The resulting alterations make for a divine pairing between opulent period piece and twisted kinkfest. Chan-Wook loses nothing of his provocateur status in such a stately framework, the film being one of the most audacious and entertaining films of the year and the most beguiling of his career (apologies to all Oldboy fans out there). One of our modern masters has something of a new calling card.
One of the many triptychs seen this year, the film unfolds over three chapters that shift perspectives between petty thief Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim) and her would-be con Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim, in a masterfully modulated performance). What follows is a thrilling guessing game of lust and deception where the rug is constantly pulled out from under the audience as to who is deceiving who. Throw in a crooked Count leading the deceit (Jung-Woo Ha) and a mysterious Uncle (Jin-Woong Jo) looming over Lady Hideko and you’ve got a real party. The film doesn’t miss a beat while expertly juggling more components than the audience can perceive at once. It’s part potboiler, part harlequin romance, and part gothic horror – but even playing in familiar tropes, the film feels entirely unique.
If the revealing of twists through repeating what we have already seen through a new lens sounds like a passé plot device, The Handmaiden‘s use of that narrative structure is so precise and absorbing to convince you otherwise. There is simply so much to take in at any given time, which aside from the demanding plotting includes character-informing costume design and rapturous production design. The film loses its grip on pacing (and perhaps the balance between the lush and the profane) in a somewhat lurching final stretch, but that doesn’t detract from the immaculately crafted whole.
The Handmaiden embodies fascinating dualities and reversals throughout. The creative forces throughout the film work together cohesively to make an arresting entertainment where the subversive masks more stuffy elements, and vice versa. Both leads are played at once as saint and deviant, whore and virgin, frozen and burning. Sex is both liberator and torturer. It could be a heady affair if it wasn’t for Chan-Wook’s wink to stir both your perceptions and libido into the pot.
Spoil the film at your own peril because The Handmaiden‘s unfolding is one of the most pleasurable film dives of the moment. Relentlessly tantalizing at even its ickiest moments, this pure cinema is heaven to behold.