In choosing one word to describe the works of South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, I look for it not in my mind where calculation can overwhelm meaning, but rather in the back of my throat where reflex holds power, and as I try to speak it the word instead tumbles out of my mouth and lays on the table dripping with tension. There it is: sumptuous. And it may just be that his latest film, The Handmaiden, is his most sumptuous yet, and for that it may be my new favorite word.
If your unfamiliar with his name, Park is the man who brought us the genre-breaking Oldboy in 2003, which, in one fell swoop, boosted him into the international spotlight where audiences everywhere suddenly wanted more. And what did they want more of exactly? More twisted humor, more painfully precise scripts, and more visually captivating scenes that are simultaneously overflowing with color and stark with the dark demons of his characters’ often-troubled minds. And over the years we’ve gotten more, some of which we gobbled up while others left more to be desired. Or maybe, maybe he was just leading us to The Handmaiden.
Inspired by Sarah Waters smash novel Fingersmith, Park discovered a story with as much vivid and rapturous detail that his own writing invokes, but with a different sort of template than he would have laid out on his own. This romance, originally set in Victorian England, would be the perfect playground for his own witchcraft to take hold and then unfold, and so it does like this:
Her whole life, Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) has been nothing but a lowly pickpocket in a small South Korean town and with little to show for it. So, when another conman, who calls himself Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) barges in to her thief den with a crazy idea with a possible fortune attached, she’s all for it with few questions asked. The mission is simple enough: Sookee will masquerade as a handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), a seemingly feeble, but extraordinarily wealthy woman living in solitude in her Japanese mansion with her oddball, book-crazed Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo). In her service, Sookee is to convince Lady Hideko to fall in love with the Count, marry him, and inevitably get thrown into the loony bin as he swindles her fortune and runs off into the sunset, giving Sookee a heft of the plunder. What the Count doesn’t expect are the complex desires these two women will eventually cultivate for each other, throwing everyone’s plan to the wind.
And so, a luxuriously warped, yet decidedly romantic tale of trick or treat ensues, and no one ends up with what they originally bargained for, which is precisely why The Handmaiden becomes one of Park’s most satisfying films yet.
But then it would be a mistake to say that The Handmaiden is simply about broken expectations. While there are plenty of “aha!” moments, it is ultimately the glances exchanged between characters, and then the framing of those glances by Park’s meticulous sense of scene, that make up the plot, arc, and exposition of the narrative—in other words, it’s a world built on the exchange of humanness and the complications that arise from that.
And while Park is the puppet master of such silent conversations, his players are the ones who make us forget we are in the midst of a 145 minute, often-melodramatic odyssey. Jung as the arrogant and wryly unsympathetic Count will appeal greatly to his wide fan base in South Korea, and Jin as Lady Hideko’s uncle with way too many secrets in his library will appropriately leave you feeling a little bit ickier as you exit the theater.
Park engrains the woes of fetishism and greed in these two characters and even indulges himself in the sexual momentum of the story to some concern, but he may indeed be punishing himself via his leading males who ultimately have to face some hard lessons.
Back to the ladies, where the magnetic pull that binds Kim’s Sookee and Min’s Lady Hideko together from the moment they first lay eyes on one another could be defined as the core of The Handmaiden’s power. Both actresses put on a mask for their characters, and then another for the other characters, and the layers of mystery behind their eyes making you weary to part ways the screen in case of missing something invaluable. Min especially shakes the story down to its bones with her unflappable confidence changing from one persona to another.
So, how could you pull your eyeballs away from these images, these images that are so, ahem, sumptuously put together on screen with the masterful help of cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung and production designer Seong-hie Ryu, both longtime collaborators of Park’s who have an exceptional understanding of color, texture, and environment? You will find no scene without thorough illustration of the tension and unsure existence of its characters, and because of that, The Handmaiden can rest on Park’s arm, awaiting its next audience to beguile and enamor all at once.
THE HANDMAIDEN hits theaters Friday, October 21st.