“You can even curse or steal things from me, but please don’t lie to me. Understand?”
If only it were so simple.
In a year where people are consistently saying that cinema is dead, enter The Handmaiden, which is not only one of the more imaginative films of the year but one that lingers on the brain liked a faded memory. The latest film from director Park Chan-wook plays with story as frivolously as its characters play with each other — twisting our expectations so hard and quickly that you may leave with a bit of whiplash, but always with a playful manner.
It is 1930s Korea and Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is heading to the house of a rich and secluded Japanese man to be the handmaiden to his niece, the heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Unbeknownst to her, Sook-Hee — who is going under the name Tamako — is a pickpocket placed in the house by Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) in order to persuade the heiress to marry him so they can make off with her fortune and toss her into a mental hospital.
But as the time wears on, Sook-Hee becomes infatuated with the heiress and the two develop a relationship that forces the Count to act more quickly than anticipated.
The charm of The Handmaiden is in its unbridled exposure to the bizarre and surreal world around it. Much like Oldboy (Chan-wook’s most famous work to date), it plants us in a space that is seemingly seeped in reality, but features small swerves to a more eclectic universe within the story’s corners. Chan-wook drapes the film in rich beauty and eroticism, making the moments when it is stripped down all the more evocative and pronounced.
This is exemplified in a scene when Lady Hideko has Sook-Hee undress her following dinner with the Count and her uncle, Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo). The command ends in her dressing the handmaiden up as well. They both marvel at the lavishness of the dresses before having to take them off.
Sook-Hee remarks at the act of undressing a person one button at a time and Chan-Wook films the scene so sensually that her words speak volumes as the same could be said about the characters’ conversations.
In a world where Fifty Shades of Grey equals peak cinematic eroticism, The Handmaiden burrows the fetish series into the ground swiftly and defiantly as it creates a sexual world exquisitely ripe.
When she isn’t exploring the help, Lad Hideko is forced by her uncle to read erotic novels to a group of fawning, drooling men. Like these readings, which are built on activating the fetishes in the mens’ hearts, it allows Hideko to own the room and hold these men hostage with her words. In the same way, Chan-wook (and co-screenwriter Seo-Kyung Chung) play with us — the audience — as they enchant us with a tale of forbidden romance in the first part, only to take all of that build-up away and cast us into an uncharted path of misdirected expectations.
This technique reminded me of something Quentin Tarantino has been doing with his recent films — namely Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight — as he establishes a world for us to get settle into before pulling the rug out from under us to reveal how wrong we were about these people. Chan-wook plays this as effectively as Tarantino, but a much more satisfying conclusion.
For one, Chan-wook’s follow-up from the twist seems much more genuine and realized. As we move deeper into the world, and clear up the blank spots that were there before, it becomes much more apparent just how rich this story is. The thriller becomes even more chilling as we uncover more about the characters.
This allows the script to tie us down a little more.
But what most enchanted me about this film is its ability to have you swimming in the outliers of proper living. This is a paramount and long tradition of cinema and art — to take us into the worlds and fetishes we don’t dare face in reality — and The Handmaiden entertains, thrills and captures us in this world.
It is a movie about feeding our passions and following through with them. Sook-Hee follows her growing passion and devotion to Hideko, who seems to feel the same for Sook-Hee. Fujiwara follows his quest to gain comfort in finances after growing up poor while Kouzuki follows his deep-welled desire to sink into an erotic and painful world.
The Handmaiden is a film about untapped experiences and the freeing feeling of pursuing what truly makes one happy. Freeing is the key word as the story flows with such pronounced authority and elusiveness that you can’t help but to be swept up in its waves. Chan-wook may have crafted his second masterpiece of a film as it feels like a movie I want to be digging deeper and deeper into.
But that seems to be the point, if The Handmaiden is our vice, we have to explore that and allow ourselves the freedom to be engulfed by its beauty.