Published Sep 08, 2016South Korean master Park Chan-wook returns with The Handmaiden, a dazzling queer revenge epic and his first film since his English-language debut, 2013's underrated Hitchcock riff Stoker. Park takes that film's critiques of wealth and the psychosexual sides of the elite (themes he's been examining for much of his career), and transposes them to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule.
Park adapts Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, which itself was set in Victorian England, follows that book's three-part structure and injecting it with plenty of his trademark cinematic verve and winky high-low trash auteurism thanks to director of photographer Chung Chung-hoon.
A con man intends to steal a wealthy family's money by marrying the heiress, Lady Hideko, who lives in a lavish mansion divided into two parts, one Victorian-style and one resembling a Japanese palace. Park evokes Guillermo Del Toro's 2015 Crimson Peak (minus the ghosts) with his backroom deals, early marvels at electricity and fleeting passionate glances that turn into explicit and frank sexuality behind closed doors. It's all a little too familiar, but Park seems to be winking at his audience to play along at every turn.
Ha Jung-woo shines as the typical Park Chan-wook clueless schemer, a con man who convinces Sook-hee, a pickpocket, to pose as Lady Hideko's handmaiden in hopes that she will help him woo the heiress. Before too long, though, the two women fall in love, further complicating the already-complex narrative. Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee as the handmaiden and the heiress, respectively, are standouts, delivering high-wire performances that reveal new layers with each section of the film. As they plot their own schemes against the clueless men in their lives, Park jumps back and forth in time at key moments to drop unexpected twists, making the film's lengthy runtime fly by.
The thing about The Handmaiden is that it's loaded with pornographic, ultra-explicit lesbian sex that feels super male-gazey. This, the film seemingly tries to argue, is the point, as his female characters tear down the male-dominated narratives they're forced to exist in, working towards claiming sex (and, by extension, these scenes) as their own. The film even ends on a metatextual wink, suggesting a final freeze frame ending before diving into one more sex scene just for the heck of it, explicitly for the women's pleasure and serving no narrative purpose.
It's all served up with hearty doses of exploitation film sleaze and broad gags, but the film sincerely works towards a narrative of these women claiming their sexuality as their own and asking provocative questions about gendered spectatorship. In a year where dudes have shouted en masse complaints of "not all men," The Handmaiden responds with "yeah, but most." It's juvenile and your mileage may vary, but there's plenty of fun to be had here.