First things first: if the marketing for this movie has given you any presumptions that this is a haughty, self-serious period drama, let go of those immediately. This happens sometimes with movies sometimes, where they’re marketed with a completely different tone for various reasons. The Handmaiden is not Oscar-bait. It’s a beautifully directed, sexual, mature foreign film set during a period where one country occupied another, and follows women from different classes escaping their respective patriarchies; but it’s not self-serious, “look how important I am” Oscar-bait like the marketing might steer to you believe.
Park Chan-Wook’s filmography of tragedies (see: Oldboy) has often been called Shakespearian, and if I didn’t know that The Handmaiden was based on a 2002 novel, I’d say this was Chan-Wook’s version of a Shakespearian farce. Instead of Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, think Twelfth Night or Comedy of Errors. The Handmaiden is a comedy of manners, at times with literal gallows humor, but its comedy first, dark second. It’s also a heist movie, or rather, multiple heist movies involving plots-on-plots-on-plots where everybody is keeping at least one huge secret.
We begin with Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), a Korean thief chosen by “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to help him steal Lady Hideko’s (Kim Min-hee) – a Japanese heiress – inheritance. Fujiwara has already convinced Hideko’s family that he is a Japanese nobleman, instead of the Korean con-man he really is, and recruits Sookee to go undercover as Hideko’s handmaiden in order to persuade her to elope with the “Count” rather than stick with her arranged marriage to her uncle. Things get complicated when Sookee begins to fall her Hideko and Hideko seems to return the feeling. And then they get more complicated.
A hugely important detail to all this is the movie’s setting. Set in 1930’s Japanese occupied Korea, characters in the movie speak and read both Korean and Japanese with various fluency, illustrated through different colored subtitles. This separation is way more than linguistic, it means that certain characters can keep secrets in one language that other characters might not understand.
And that’s all I’m saying about plot, because this movie will take you for a spin. The Handmaiden has the most effective switch in perspective this side of Rashomon, and twists and turns that will go up alongside The Usual Suspects and Fight Club. The last time I remember a movie throwing me for a loop as this one did was Gone Girl, and this movie greatly outdoes that one.
I even hesitate to talk about the acting in this one because I feel going into too much detail might give something away. Let me just say that everyone is perfectly acted down to the smallest detail, and take into consideration that the actors are playing characters that are acting for other characters in the movie. Things like speech patterns, body language, gait, how comfortable their character is supposed to act in any given environment, masterfully convey everything each actor wants the audience, and the other characters, to know in any given scene.
The complexity of character and plot is complimented by the overwhelming grandeur of the setting and direction. A majority of the movie takes place on Hideko’s uncle’s estate, a massive chateau that’s half Victorian mansion and half Japanese palace, surrounded by vibrant green forests. The men wear an array of suits with hats and tails while the non-servant women switch between elegant jazz era gowns and Edo period kimono. The Handmaiden is not shy about the level of wealth and extravagance these characters are dealing with.
Another thing this movie isn’t shy at all about is its eroticism. The Handmaiden is an unabashedly sexy movie, but it’s never just about the titillation. The most extraordinary part of this movie’s direction might actually be how the sexual climaxes in the movie – the fully nude sex scenes – represent narrative climaxes; they’re the cathartic result of the narrative and sexual foreplay where things really get electric. The most erotic scenes of the movie is instead a comparatively innocuous bath scene where one of the couple remains fully clothed, and the two rather awkwardly stare at each-other.
With The Handmaiden, Park Chan-Wook expertly walks the line between excess and restraint. He made an erotically-charged lesbian love story with corsets that are carefully unlaced rather than ripped off, where we’re given a vagina’s perspective on cunnilingus that shows us the face of a puppy-eyed lover. It’s a movie about subterfuge and theft and patriarchy and bondage, but above that, it’s a love story.