Three years after Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut Stoker came and went without much fanfare (despite being pretty decent), the Oldboy director is back on undeniable terra firma with a gorgeous, unexpectedly erotic delight which nevertheless retains Park’s knack for uncomfortable imagery and shocking twists.
In 1930s South Korea, con man Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) teams up with a young, lowly pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), to rip off a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), by gathering intel on her, marrying into the family and then having Hideko declared insane in order to take control of her riches and split them among themselves. It’s a Park Chan-wook film, though, so nothing is ever simple or as you would otherwise expect.
The Handmaiden is, simply, another deliriously entertaining shocker from a modern-day thriller maestro; every scene, beautifully rendered by Park’s regular DP Chung Chung-hoon, drips in suspense and sensuousness, such that audiences can never be quite sure which way is up. Just when it seems like things might level out, a new revelation that changes almost everything prior will emerge, and audiences will likely have plenty of fun allowing themselves to be duped again and again. Sure, it’s totally absurd, yet you’ll probably be having far too much fun to care about such trivialities.
Yes, it is occasionally obtuse or confusing as a result of its densely-layered narrative, but the sum of its parts is never less than crystal clear. Meticulously constructed and edited for maximum shock value, alongside a trio of impeccable performances, it may not quite sit up there with the director’s most infamous and acclaimed work, but it’s sure not far off either.
For those craving a thoughtful, beautifully-filmed and almost troublingly sexy time at the movies, it’s tough to come up with many more enticing movies this year, as long as you’re open-minded enough to roll with Park’s usual deference towards the totally fucked up. This devilishly enjoyable thriller won’t be easily forgotten.
The Handmaiden is in US cinemas October 21st and premieres at the London Film Festival on October 7th