When twists become turns, and turns become kinks
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Elegantly depraved and immaculately degenerate, Park Chan Wook's "The Handmaiden" is an astonishment. The filmmaking is masterful, very near to Hitchcock in its sly, controlled teasing of the audience. The material combines Gothic fiction, Victorian repression, Sadean kink, and Nabokovian mind games to emerge as a genuinely erotic piece of cinema, too playful to be dangerous but too lethally sensual to dismiss. It's a comedy and a serious thriller, an essay on gender power roles and a high-end Skinemax flick. It is chilly and hot, and it is something to see.
The movie's source is "Fingersmith," a 2002 novel written by Sarah Waters and set in 19th-century England. The book has already been turned into a 2005 BBC film (starring Sally Hawkins); a much-praised stage adaptation arrives at the ART, in Cambridge, in December. Park puts the material through a grand mutation, setting the tale in a 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation.
The petty pickpocket Sookee (Kim Tae Ri) is hired as a handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min Hee), the fragile, virginal step-niece of a corrupt Korean industrialist, Kouzuki (Cho Jin Woong), who has made himself over as a Japanese aesthete. Sookee's role is part of a long con in which Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung Woo), actually a Korean rake posing as nobility, intends to marry Lady Hideko, transfer her wealth to himself, and stash her in a madhouse.
That's the setup and it's straightforward enough — there's even a creepy housekeeper (Kim Hae Sook) right out of "Rebecca." Yet nothing in "The Handmaiden" plays out according to the characters' plans or the audience's expectations. For one thing, the bond between the new servant and her mistress quickly acquires overtones of foreplay. A bathtub scene in which the handmaiden reaches into the Lady's mouth to file down a bothersome molar with a thimbled thumb is ripe with erotic portent. And, trust me, we haven't seen anything yet.
There follow multiple revelations, betrayals, narrative switchbacks, and cinematic fake-outs, each plunging us further down into Park's house of mirrors. The South Korean director is best known to fans of bent world cinema for his "Vengeance" trilogy of "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" (2002), "Oldboy" (2003), and "Lady Vengeance" (2005), while "Stoker" (2013) saw him bring his visionary sense of style and irony to Hollywood, with mixed results. Hollywood makes boxes, and Park likes to climb out of boxes, break them down, and rebuild them into booby traps for his characters and for us.
In "The Handmaiden," vengeance is once again on the menu. The film is a luxuriantly decadent feast of filmmaking, with swooning camerawork (Chung Choon Hung), darkly lush production design (Ryu Seong Hie), period costumes (Jo Sang Gyeong) and hair and makeup (Song Jonh Hee) that all heighten a refined yet ravaged sensuality. A key location in the film is a wood-paneled library filled with elegantly bound volumes, each containing a work of classic pornography. The library appears to be guarded by a snake. Something worse may be in the basement.
The movie knows that the more refined the exteriors, the darker and more ecstatic the secrets therein, and Park is more than happy to let those secrets bloom to the fullest expression of (exposed) flesh and (flowing) blood. Even the English-language subtitles are multilayered: yellow for Japanese, white for Korean, conqueror and conquered dancing around each other and vying for control, sometimes in the same sentence.
I don't think Park recombines his genre clichés into great art. I don't think he wants to. Like Hitchcock, he seems content simply building a better booby trap than you've ever experienced before. But the director also has one of the sneakier senses of humor in the business — what is that octopus doing there? — and "The Handmaiden" works as both a black comedy of eros and a tale of seduction that by its final scenes forces us to confront our own limits of pleasure and prurience.
Does this movie exploit its female characters (and the actresses playing them so cleverly and well), or does it show them triumphing over gendered notions of narrative and behavior? Are the handmaiden and her Lady objects of our desire or subjects moving with their own forces of will? Is the climactic shot of clasped hands an image of passion or a gesture of solidarity?
Because this is a Park Chan Wook movie, the answer to all these questions has to be Yes. You can take it or leave it, but I'd advise the former. There may not be a director currently working who's more of an evil genius, or whose movies offer more double-edged delights.
Directed by Park Chan Wook. Written by Park and Chung Seo Kyeung, based on the novel "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters. Starring Kim Tae Ri, Kim Min Hee, Ha Jung Woo. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 144 minutes. Unrated (as R: nudity, sexuality, violence, exquisite deviance). In Korean and Japanese, with subtitles.