Park Chan-wook is best known for what is now known as his Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance), three films that are unrelated in plot but share deep thematic ties and the director’s perchance for extreme violence and a dark, often perverse sense of humor. His latest film, The Handmaiden gives up the violence (mostly) and exchanges it for a lush, tightly plotted period romance (albeit one with some fairly graphic lesbian sex and tentacle porn).
Set in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, the film tells the story of Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) a pick-pocket and con artist who, with the help of fellow con Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), is set up as the handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee), a rich heiress living in a beautiful country estate with her eccentric Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Count Fujiwara (who is neither a real count nor Japanese as his name suggests) wants Sook-hee to help him seduce Hideko out of the clutches of Uncle Kouzuki so that he can marry her, take her to Japan, commit her to an asylum, and live the rest of his days off her money. Things get complicated when Sook-hee begins to fall in love with Hideko and tries to thwart Fujiwara’s plans.
To say much more is to spoil the intricacies of its jigsaw labyrinth plot. There are twists after turns after twists. The film seems to know this as after a particularly shocking scene about one-third of the way in it rewinds and tells some of the same scenes from a different characters point of view. It does this again two-thirds of the way through breaking the film up into three sections.
Chan-wook films it like a lush period drama you might find on PBS’ Masterpiece series or a prestige piece from the BBC. This makes its brief moments of violence all the more shocking. It is so magnificently dressed and photographed that even when its intricately confusing plot completely lost me, I was completely enthralled. Much has been made of the film’s lesbian-sex scenes. They are graphic for a semi-mainstream film making its way to the American shores, but never gratuitous. Both Sook-hee and Lady Hideko have lived lives in which men abused their sexuality for their own gain so that when they are able to find tenderness (and yes, deeply felt pleasure) between themselves, it turns the plotting of their stories into their own hands.
Park Chan-wook has made created a niche out of directing films that shock and beguile audiences. With The Handmaiden, he has given us his biggest surprise yet by making one of year’s most beautiful romances.