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.