With its cool color timing, fussy mise-en-scène and confrontational sexuality (including incestual desires), The Handmaiden announces itself early on as a Park Chan-wook film. The director’s first Korean feature since 2009’s Thirst, the film finds Park on familiar ground not only geographically but thematically. It begins ominously, with a young woman, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), being dispatched to a country manor to be the servant of a Japanese noblewoman in occupied 1930s Korea. The city from which she departs is rendered in cold grays and claustrophobic blocking, a town suffocating itself with unemployment and poverty. Once in her new mistress’s car and headed out to the mansion, however, the frame turns bright with golden sunlight and verdant with lush fields. Even the car interior, with its rich, plum velvet, is warm and reassuring.

Yet the sense of unease generated in the city never dissipates, and it only expands when the valet reaches the home at night. The manor itself reflects the myriad outside influences at work on Korea and East Asia at large; the house’s exterior is modeled on English Victorian architecture, while the interior is laid out with Japanese tatami floors and shōji doors. The design immediately singles out Sook-hee, the native Korean, as an element that does not belong; alienation confirmed when the mansion’s resident governess, Sasaki (Kim Hae-sook), casually calls the woman Tamako before pausing and informing the girl that this is her new name.

Despite the meek supplication of Sook-hee to her new job, it is soon revealed that she has been purposefully sent to the house by the con-man Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) in order to help cajole the mistress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), to marry him, at which point he will gain control of the woman’s wealth and have her committed to an asylum. This immediately complicates the tone of the film, as well as the manner in which both Hideko and Sook-hee clearly take a sexual interest in one another, with Hideko naïve putty in her maid’s hands as Sook-hee herself seems to flit between dispassionate commitment to her job and budding love for the woman.

Sook-hee’s inner tension magnifies when Fujiwara arrives and begins to ply his prey with sickly ingratiating charm, and the tension between the three ferments quickly. But just as the film reaches a stage where one begins to wonder how, exactly, it can sustain the generous running time, the plot undergoes a major twist, then another, then so many more that it becomes not so much a tangle as a Gordian knot of mutual backstabbing and conspiracy. Hideko, at her greatest moment of vulnerability, is revealed to be a great deal shrewder than she lets on, and the perspective suddenly shifts away, first to Hideko, then to Fujiwara. Flashbacks further complicate each character’s motivations, and scenes frequently replay themselves in radically altered contexts.

Of the three Korean genre directors who broke out internationally in the early 21st century, Park has always seemed to split the difference between the other two, and not in a good way. Park lacks the truly giddy abandon of Kim Jee-woon, and he cannot match Bong Joon-ho for thematic incisiveness. But The Handmaiden plays so perfectly to Park’s strengths; its neo-Gothic perversion and contained, repressive production design recalls Crimson Peak, and the location restriction works much the same way it did for Guillermo del Toro’s movie. The insularity of the film’s setting focuses Park, bringing out the best in his stately direction, which has always been an emptily ironic contrast to the ultraviolence he depicts. Here, the violence is there, but until the very end, it hangs around the margins, insinuated in traumatic childhood stories. Instead of visualizing rape, we are treated to flashbacks of Hideko being groomed for a lifetime of violation by her perverted uncle (Cho Jin-woong) by being forced to calmly read erotica aloud at gatherings for him and close friends. By dialing back the extremity of his cinema, Park makes moments that are truly disturbing for allowing the audience to some of the work for him.

That’s not to suggest that this Park completely tones down. His direction is as formal as ever, and he makes great use of the Japanese interiors for geometrically precise compositions that create a subtle trap for everyone in the house. The final act, in which the camera finally ventures into the basement that the uncle threateningly references throughout, brings out some of the classic Park nastiness, including a grotesque (yet minimally shown) bit of digital manipulation. This dungeon also contains an image that could represent the director’s entire approach to the movie: an octopus, so ludicrously huge it resembles Jules Verne’s colossal cephalopod stuffed into a household fish tank, squirming in the background, contained but bending the limits of its constraints. The endless twists of the movie deserve to be seen without spoilers, but they are fascinating enough for how radically they keep changing the core perspective of the material that they can withstand multiple viewings.

  • Stoker

    [xrr rating=2.25/5]Park Chan-wook has already entered the pantheon of fanboy-approved dire…
  • WTF: Oldboy

    These are the movies that are so strange, so deliriously out of whack that they stop even …
  • Thirst

    Thirst Dir: Park Chan-wook Rating: 3.0/5.0 Focus Features 133 Minutes Within the framework…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

The Stooges: Live at Goose Lake: August 8th, 1970

Fleetingly captures the mythology that has enshrined the band for decades. …