South Korean film “The Handmaiden” is a droll, morbid exercise in sensuality and perversity. Besides being a sumptuous erotic melodrama which tantalizes and enthralls our eyes with its ornate moods and details, this is also a delightfully twisted thriller which thrills and amuses us as revealing whatever lies behind or below its apparently unreliable settings. When its convoluted plot becomes more loose and straightforward during its last act, it becomes relatively less interesting, but the movie provides enough naughty fun to support its long running time (144 minutes), and we are willing to go along with the potentially dangerous dynamics of seduction, perversion, and manipulation among its main characters.
Its story is set in Korea during the 1930s, which was the middle of the Japanese Occupation era. The opening scene introduces to us a poor urban girl named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), and she is soon sent to a big manor somewhere outside the city as a newly hired handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the young lady of the manor. As a car carrying Sook-hee enters the manor, we cannot help but be impressed by not only its vast scale but also the weirdly eclectic style of the mansion located in the middle of its remote surrounding area. This big, imposing mansion is distinguished by its baroque juxtaposition of British and Japanese architectures, and so is a huge antique library for the owner of the manor, who has been known well for his enormous personal collection of kinky books and artworks.
His official name is Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), but this dirty wealthy middle-aged guy is in fact a Korean naturalized as a Japanese citizen via his marriage to some Japanese noble woman, who killed herself not long after her young orphaned niece was brought to Kouzuki’s manor. That young girl was Lady Hideko, and it seems her uncle actually considers marrying her just for further solidifying his social and financial status. After all, he still wants to collect more for his library, and that will definitely cost a lot.
As she goes through her first day as Tamako at the mansion under the stern supervision of its female butler who is as forbidding as Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca” (1940), Sook-hee is told about how she should behave and serve Lady Hideko, but, this is not much of a spoiler, she already knows well what kind of job she is going to do there. In contrast to her seemingly naïve appearance on the outside, she is actually a street-smart crook who has worked for her small organization, and her real purpose is helping the nasty scheme of her accomplice, who presents himself as Count Fujiwara to Kouzuki and Lady Hideko in advance.
As the plot thickens, we come to know more about their plan. While Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) ingratiates himself with Kouzuki as assisting Kouzuki’s lucrative swindles involved with his collections, he is also going to try to win Lady Hideko’s heart, and Sook-hee will smoothen this process as someone whom this lonely lady can trust and lean on. Once he gets the money through his marriage with Lady Hideko, there will be a dire consequence for his wife, but Sook-hee is fine with that because she will get her own share of money in the end.
However, Sook-hee finds herself unexpectedly attracted toward Lady Hideko, who initially seems to be frigid and haughty enough to deserve her handmaiden’s hidden contempt but then reveals her more benign and alluring sides as days go by. The more Sook-hee and her accomplice advance with their plan on Lady Hideko, the more Sook-hee becomes drawn to her mistress, and that naturally creates considerable strains in this increasingly unstable triangle.
As a number of things during the first act are rearranged later along with other crucial things and then presented via a different viewpoint, the director/co-adapter Park Chan-wook, who has been known well to international audiences thanks to “Oldboy” (2003) and the following works including “Thirst” (2009) and “Stoker” (2013), did an impeccable job of building up his own edgy, stylish atmosphere to hold our attention even when we observe his mostly untrustworthy characters from the distance. The production design by Ryu Seong-hee, who received the Vulcan Prize for the Technical Artist after the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in last month, is dazzlingly beautiful as creating a visually bountiful world to be inhabited by characters, and the cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon is superb in its deft, confident handling of lighting and scene composition, while constantly suggesting something dark and sinister behind their slick, luxurious environment.
As doing a fairly good job of delivering the frequent Japanese dialogue scenes in the movie, the main cast members have a fun with hurling themselves into their respective roles. While the movie is indubitably a big breakthrough for newcomer actress Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, who delighted me with her comic performances in “Very Ordinary Couple” (2012) and “Right Now, Wrong Then” (2015), is equally compelling and beautiful as effectively complementing her co-star on the screen. The movie is often surprisingly very funny and humorous as these two lovely actresses push and pull each other behind their back, and we also get a couple of heated moments of nudity which, to our amusement, turn out to have more things to be undressed later.
While Ha Jung-woo is alternatively dapper and caddish as required, Cho Jin-woong, who previously acted along with Ha in “Nameless Gangster” (2012), is loathsome as a man with unspeakable perversions to nurse in his secret dungeon. The movie does not miss the absurd irony between these two rotten men of different social classes who are trying to deceive each other through each own fake Japanese identity, but it is a little disappointing that the movie does not go further with their certain scene which may take you back to one of the infamous moments in “Oldboy”. Kim Hae-sook, who gave a scene-stealing supporting performance in “Thirst”, holds her own small place as a butler who may be as sadistic as a man she serves for, and Moon So-ri briefly appears as Kouzuki’s doomed wife.
“The Handmaiden” is based on Sarah Waters’ acclaimed novel “Fingersmith”, whose story is set in the 19th century England during the Victorian era. Although I have not read the novel yet, I heard that the novel is different from the movie in many aspects besides this notable period background difference. Due to visible narrative flaws during the third act of the movie, I came to wonder whether the novel or its 2005 BBC TV miniseries adaptation is better in comparison, but “The Handmaiden” remains to be a bold visual pleasure packaged with style and wit, and I enjoyed its performances and technical achievements as tickled by its wry naughtiness. I paid, and I got as much as I could expect from Park Chan-wook’s work.