Chan-wook Park’s cinema is predicated on misdirection, using the tactics of mysteries and thrillers to keep the viewers eyes glued to one narrative path while setting shrewdly laying the groundwork for unforeseen, often twisted and sadistic, alternate paths that audiences could never see coming. At his best (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), there is an intricacy to Park’s writing, a psychological complexity to his characters and a structural soundness that prevents it from falling like a house of cards as so many rug-pulling, gotcha-style modern thrillers do. While his last two films, Thirst and Stoker both had their highlights, it was beginning to look like Park’s films were losing a bit of their meat, still complex in the way they were built but increasingly hollow exercises in style that floated into the either as the credits rolled rather than leaving you shaken to the core as his best work tends to do. In this sense, The Handmaiden is a return to form as he once again probes the deepest, darkest corners of his labyrinthine plot, revealing a depth of despair, longing and self-destructive impulsiveness missing from his more recent outings.
Ironically, while this is a return to the quality of Park’s earlier work, it is also more reminiscent of the one contemporary Korean director he’s rarely associated with — Hong Sang-soo. For the first hour, The Handmaiden plays it fairly straight as a period chamber drama in 1930s Japan and sets up its con game as Fujiwara, who will pose as a Count, enlists the poor Sook-Hee to act as Lady Hideko’s maid and, after gaining her confidence, convince her to marry him. He plans to then drug her and have her committed to a mental institution and be left with her fortune and enough money to make Sook-Hee and her family’s life much more comfortable. As Sook-Hee gets closer to Hideko, however, things quickly turn towards the erotic and the Count’s plans are disrupted. It’s fairly standard erotic thriller fare at first and 45 minutes in, I was wondering if this would end up being another solid yet underwhelming effort by Park, but fortunately, the film was just about to get its gears going.
Where the first act meticulously puts its chess pieces in place, the second and third acts not only constantly re-arrange the pieces — examining them from an array of different perspectives, repeating several scenes and sequences and, in true Hong Sang-soo fashion, re-contextualizing them within the framework of the grander whole — but changes the game board as well. The additional piece introduced to the puzzle more fully in the second act is Hideko’s perverted uncle who wants to marry her and holds secret meetings with his wealthy friends where tawdry, graphic erotic fiction is read and occasionally reenacted. His character is almost gleefully over-the-top, adding an element of dark comedy and depravity that quickly transforms the film from a staid period piece into a deeply troubling film of abuse, victimization, and unconscionable misogyny.
This hidden underbelly, lurking in the basement where a variety of sadomasochistic rituals have taken place over the years, ultimately works its way into the bizarre love triangle taking place above ground, with past trauma intermingling with future betrayals in a present that is increasingly unstable. Its ever-shifting power dynamics develop not simply from its Russian nesting doll narrative unfurling, but through a creative use of flashbacks and scenes replayed within newly discovered contexts that further complicate the relationships between the intertwined trio and develop the prickly emotional terrain upon which they traverse. As Hideko and Count Fujiwara’s full intentions come into focus, the film blooms like a flower with its visual flourishes enhancing the beauty of all the twists and turns that unfold in its narrative.
As brilliant as Park is at steering the audience through this remarkably complex narrative, The Handmaiden does have its glaring faults, the most obvious of which is its rather puerile gender dynamics. Sexuality is dealt with in the broadest of terms, particularly in its feverish depiction of the lesbian relationship, in which Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko often feel less like female characters with agency than playthings for a male director looking to depict an exaggerated sense of the erotic. While Hideko’s sexual prowess is ultimately justified through her back story, Sook-Hee’s feels a bit cheap and out of the blue for the convenience of the plot. Despite the oversimplification of Sook-Hee’s burgeoning sexuality, Park does eventually spend a lot of time exploring Hideko, using her backstory not only to justify her sexual idiosyncrasies, but her moral decisions as well. By the end, both Sook-Hee and Hideko achieve a sense of empowerment, having in their own strange ways navigated the choppy patriarchal waters that once threatened to drown them. Given their fate compared to that of their male counterpart, claims of general misogyny in the film are more than a bit overstated.
While The Handmaiden makes some missteps with gender roles and its morality/revenge angle never reaches the heights of the Vengeance Trilogy, its pure surface pleasures are simply too wonderful to ignore. Even at its silliest, it’s still rather brilliant in the strangest, most mystifying ways, blending the playfully absurd with the unsettlingly perverse in a way only Park can, while his mastery of its shifting tones and character dynamics is more than enough to make this thoroughly enjoyable as purely a mystery. What it lacks, at times, in true character depth and emotion, it makes up for in spades with its sheer elation in taking you on a journey deep within the troubled world its characters all find themselves trapped in. Its final sequence is a wonderful capper, relishing in the purely sensual — cross-cuts of heightened inhales and exhales bleeding into a flashback of the trio floating peacefully in rowboat with two of the most oddly touching and effective freeze frames in recent memory, and then finally to the ocean quietly splashing and the sound of bells clacking (where the bells are, on the other hand, is all part of the mystery) amidst the moonlit water. It’s a delicate, surreal turn that comes right when you’d expect something more vicious and cutting, yet it’s one of many surprises that show Park is not as limited in scope as his harsher critics would have you believe. In his own unique way, he reveals himself as a romantic here, conveying a disarming tenderness given the kinky sex act that’s on display. It’s a wonderful ending to one of the year’s more delightfully offbeat and pleasurable films.