“What does a crook know about love?”
Rich in equal parts beauty and horror, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a lush, erotic costume drama with a twist of black humor and sadism. It’s a shock to the system; the absolute best sort of argument against anyone who would like to declare that 2016 is the “year the movies died.”
Adapting Sarah Waters’ English-set novel Fingersmith and transporting it to Japanese-occupied Korea in 1930, Park has concocted a period piece that lives and breathes the way few others do. In The Handmaiden, pick-pocket Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) is sent by con-artist Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to serve as the handmaiden for the wealthy Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). The plan: Sookee will convince Hideko to fall in love with Fujiwara, who will be posting as a wealthy count. Then, Sookee and Fujiwara will lock Hideko away in an insane asylum and make off with her fortune.
Things don’t go according to plan.
Because Sookee, to her astonishment, seemingly falls instantly in love — or at least lust — with Hideko when she first lays eyes on her. “I didn’t realize she’d be so beautiful,” she thinks in a voice-over as Hideko appears before her dressed in virginal white. Hideko lives with her perverted uncle (Cho Jin-woong), who has Hideko read smutty antique books to audiences of well-dressed gentlemen, and also occasionally straddle a human-sized puppet as a visual aid. It’s a hellish existence, and while Sookee sets out to follow-through with the con job and convince Hideko to marry the “count”, the relationship between the two women continues to grow until it explodes into full-blown lovemaking, via a passionately filmed sex scene.
If this seems like a lot already, just wait — Park is just getting started. Sookee and Hideko consummate their relationship barely halfway through the film. And then Park sets up a twist that very few will see coming, and backtracks a few decades. When the story catches back up to present-day, we see the same events we saw in the first-half of the film unfold again, but from Hideko’s point of view. It’s a sneaky little twist, and it works to perfection.
Through it all, Park stages the film with his usual attention to gruesome details, contrasted with lavish beauty. Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography, awash in dark colors and soft light, is beyond gorgeous, and the way he lights the two main actresses only adds to the visual splendor.
The Handmaiden is a punch to the gut and a kiss on the mouth. It’s romantic and sadistic. It’s a study in contrasts. It must be seen, and breathed in, and experienced, to be believed. As long as films like this still exist, movies will live a long and healthy life.
This review originally appeared on 9/15/2016.