Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden is a lot of things. It’s an adaptation of Susan Waters’ Fingersmith that takes the original Victorian England-set story and moves it to Japan-occupied 1930s Korea. It’s a tale of a budding lesbian romance with already infamously explicit sex scenes. It’s a twisty, turny con artist movie. And, most importantly, it’s utterly bloody brilliant; intricate and densely plotted, beautifully shot and designed, and a ridiculous amount of fun. Starting with rural Korean girl Sook-Hee (Tae-Ri Kim) being sent to a grand mansion to act as the personal Handmaiden of the incredibly wealthy (and, importantly, unwed) Lady Hideko (Min-Hee Kim), it’s not long before we’re deep in the realm of grifts, lies, and triple crosses.
To go any further into the details of the plot would almost immediately enter spoiler territory – the marketing has remained admirably coy in showing off any story details – and The Handmaiden is definitely best experienced going in with no idea of what to expect. Suffice it to say, though, that it’s a wildly entertaining ride with reveals, betrayals, and flashbacks that will keep you guessing and reeling until the final scene. No character, with the exception of the villainous and deeply perverted Uncle (Jin-Woong Jo), is exactly who they initially appear to be, keeping things fresh for the lengthy, nearly two and half hour, runtime.
On the other hand, the trailers have been far less careful in their revealing of many of The Handmaiden’s best individual shots, from disorienting pans to an external shot of the grand house’s rolling blackouts via dolly zooms straight out of Jaws or a Hitchcock piece. The highest praise I can heap on Park’s film is that it legitimately feels like we’ve managed to get one last Hitchcock film, as if the thriller maestro was briefly reincarnated in Korea to make the best film of 2017 so far.
Labyrinthine mysteries with dark, layered characters, shocking brutality, and heart-stopping thrills, all conducted in a very particular formal style, The Handmaiden seeks out Hitchcock comparisons in a number of ways, not least in its pushing of mainstream cinematic sexual boundaries. Just as Rear Window and Psycho were scandalously sexy, Park proves that there’s still powerful life in sexuality on screen even in this far less inhibited era. Similar to Blue is the Warmest Colour, though not quite as graphic, the sex scenes here might prove uncomfortable for some, especially with a male director at their helm, but in using sex as titillation, emotional connection, humour, and even as a weapon, Park gives these scenes resonance beyond just the voyeuristic.
Dominating the conversation around the film as they have, you’d be forgiven for assuming that The Handmaiden is defined by these scenes, and though they do contain some of the most daring moments of the movie, bordering on being truly pornographic, they are far from the driving force. Every door in the meticulously designed house, drawing from both Japanese and English styles to separate it from its Korean surroundings, hides a secret, whether it belongs to Sook-Hee, Hideko, or the enigmatic Count Fujiwara (Jung-Woo Ha).
Committed, multifaceted performances from the entire cast keep the stakes of the elaborate and faintly absurd plot grounded, and will be fascinating to examine again upon rewatching with all the facts to hand. The Handmaiden practically demands repeat viewings, which is absolutely fine, as I wanted to start it all over again as soon as the final shot, brimming as it was with hilarious, gut-punch audacity, faded into the credits. Park has crafted a modern masterpiece that can sit alongside the work of the Master of Suspense, a title that very, very few auteurs can claim.