Park Chan-wook’s new movie is a tale of sex and betrayal that takes the erotic games of Dangerous Liaisons and transfers them to occupied Korea
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Running time: 145 minutes
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
(In Korean and Japanese with English subtitles)
By Jay Stone
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is set during the colonial era in Korea, but it’s based on a novel that takes place in Victorian England, about sensuous and depraved people who betray and seduce one another in the interests of money, power and sexual sadism. In many ways it is Dangerous Liaisons dressed in silks, a twisting tale of double-crosses that take us deep into an intricate estate — half Asian, half English — that hides many dark and erotic secrets.
Whew! Just let me mop my brow for a moment here. The Handmaiden has that effect, so saturated is it in the pleasures (and pains) of the flesh. Park Chan-wook is the provocative stylist who gave us such unsettling fare as the original Oldboy (a man is imprisoned for years for reasons he cannot understand; at the climax, he cuts off his own tongue in a pair of scissors) and Stoker, the Nicole Kidman thriller about the visit of a suspicious uncle that was a glowering riff on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.
There’s a touch of Hitchcock here as well, although it’s not easy to recognize under the formalities of its serene set design of screened rooms and a garden dominated by a lush cherry tree from which a woman could — and indeed has — hanged herself in despair.
That combination of beauty and danger suffuses The Handmaiden from the very start. Lovely Sook-hoo (Kim Tai-ri) has won a job as the maid to a lonely, naïve heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Sook-hoo is Korean and Hideko is Japanese, and their positions are a reflection of their relative status at the time, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. In addition, the film’s subtitles are color-coded: yellow for Japanese, and white for Korean, so we can further appreciate the layers of meaning and subtext in everyone’s declarations, most of which are lies anyway.
The first surprise comes when we learn that Sook-hoo isn’t just a maid. She’s a pickpocket and escape artist, part of a gang of thieves and forgers, and she has been dispatched to Hideko’s estate in order to help with a pitiless sexual plan. A handsome con man named Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) plans to seduce Hideko, marry her, have her declared insane and then steal all her money. “Each night in bed, I think of her assets,” he says, a shameless libertine greedy for cash.
To do this, he has to woo her away from a home where her perverse uncle, a bibliophile with a large collection of pornography, makes her read dirty stories to his clientele of sadists, masochists and other various representatives of the elite. (You can see how Victorian England was a good starting point for the story.) It’s Sook-hee’s job to encourage her mistress with such observations as, “Your toenails have grown faster since the count arrived.” Against all odds, this seems to be working.
But not all is as it seems. For one thing, Hideko is frightened of intimacy. “What is it that men want?,” she asks Sook-hee, launching the film into the realm of female erotica that is shot in gauzy, graphic close-ups that are as delicate as a blossom. You feel another layer of the narrative being peeled away with the bedclothes, even if you’re never comfortable with anyone’s motives.
The Handmaiden is divided into three sections. The first tells half the story. The second — reminiscent of the notorious French novel The Story of O — retells the story from a different point of view, so we can see how it’s done, in the manner of a Penn and Teller routine that exposes the magic while still entrancing us. The third wraps everything up, allowing for the nudity. It also includes a few scenes of graphic violence that disturb and lessen the deeper, more satisfying thrills of the film’s several betrayals. Park Chan-wook is growing as an artist, but sometimes he just can’t stop himself.
“Where I come from, it’s illegal to be naïve,” someone says near the end, and by then, we have learned not to be. Love conquers all in this beautiful movie, but it’s not pretty.
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