The Handmaiden is a cinematic magic trick. The Astounding Park Chan-wook steps onto the stage and flourishes his plot. His sleeves billow with the unknown, but we can’t be sure what, if anything, is up them. Then, with a magic word and a flick of his wrist, Park twists the plot in his hands, showing us facets that weren’t there before. It is an inspiring feat of prestidigitation, the film an intricately carved puzzle box. And somehow, underneath the crosses and double-crosses, the ulterior motives, and the layers upon layers of scheming, it manages to be an affectingly sweet, even life-affirming love story.
The film is based on Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith, with the setting transposed from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. The self-styled Count (Ha Jung-woo) and Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) are con artists. Their mark: Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a rich Japanese heiress living with her uncle (Jo Jin-woong), who is Korean but aspires to be Japanese. The plan: Sookee will pose as the lady’s maid and manipulate her into falling in love with and marrying the Count “Fujiwara”; they will then have the lady committed to a madhouse and abscond with her fortune.
That is all I can safely say, without ruining the fun of The Handmaiden’s narrative. I could reference other films that have used similar devices to those employed here, but that would hit too close to the mark and give the game away. I could labour another metaphor (a Rubik’s Cube, perhaps, or Necker Cube, or some other rectangular prism), but then I would force expectations that might ruin your enjoyment of this fabulous film.
To the performances, then. They are all fantastic. Ha Jung-woo’s Count is debonair and wily, a fusion of of his humble beginnings and the affluence to which he aspires. Jo Jin-woong’s Uncle Kouzuki walks on the safe side of caricature (again, I won’t spoil the fun by detailing Kouzuki’s singular hobby). But this is a female-driven film (dare I say, a feminist film?), and it is the women who shine here. Kim Tae-ri is our way in: a seemingly guileless student to the Count, she nevertheless has her own shifting motivations. Kim Min-hee, though, steals the show. In playing Lady Hideko (and this is perhaps saying too much) she almost plays two separate roles.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I am going to talk about the sex. I wouldn’t go so far as labelling The Handmaiden an erotic thriller; it is more a thriller with a vein of eroticism running through it. The film explores themes of voyeurism, and includes a number of sex scenes, most notably one of a sapphic nature. What is most remarkable about this particular scene is that its purpose is not titillation, though titillating it certainly is. It is instead a defining moment of character development, and the point at which some pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place.
(Incidentally, two young boys walked into the screening about an hour in, presumably because they had heard about the Big Lesbian Scene. They sat near the front for twenty minutes and then left, having seen nothing to sate their adolescent curiosity. Which is a shame, because had they remained for another half hour they would have been rigorously rewarded. Another man, who had been there from the beginning, left immediately after the scene in question. I guess he got what he had paid for.)
Park Chan-wook, who is probably still best known in the West for Oldboy, brings his usual visual wit to The Handmaiden. Every shot is impeccably framed, and Park delights in moving his camera in unexpected, sometimes jarring ways. He also infuses the film with his signature dark, often absurd sense of humour. The score, by Jo Yeong-wook, also deserves mention. It is beautifully baroque, evoking the gothic thrillers – the likes of Hitchcock’s Rebecca or the more recent Crimson Peak – to which The Handmaiden owes a considerable debt.
For all its narrative craftsmanship and cineliterate nature, at its heart The Handmaiden is a profoundly sweet human drama. When the magic trick is over, when Park takes a bow and disappears from the stage in a puff of smoke, we are left with a genuine, earnest, lovely love story. Perhaps that is the real magic trick here: turning a complex contraption of a film, one that could easily have been just a cold exercise in cinematic technique, into something truly beautiful.