Based on Sarah Water’s novel Fingersmith, Chan-Wook Park’s THE HANDMAIDEN hornswaggles its audience with its opening scenes, and then continues on for its running time to continually confound, shock, and gratify that same audience. Told in four separate chapters that each covers roughly the same action, reality becomes a series of preconceived notions that are confounded with deft wit and grotesque irony. It’s an elegant puzzle of a film with a dark edge and a wicked sense of humor.
That first scene finds Sook-Hee (Kim Tai-ri) taking leave of her loved ones in the midst of the pouring rain. She is going to serve as a lady’s maid in a grand house far away, and those who are bidding her farewell are weeping, some declaring that it should have been them going, an older woman taking a baby from Sook-Hee’s arms and gently placing an enameled hairpin in Sook-Hee’s coif. Trust nothing. The emotions are real. The older woman’s gesture is a genuinely generous one, but as with everything else in this superbly constructed film, there’s much more going on.
Sook-Hee will be serving Lady Hideko (Min hee-Kim), a childlike heiress of great beauty and even greater innocence. Clutching a doll, and plagued with nightmares about her demented aunt who committed suicide, Hideko is being groomed to marry her late aunt’s husband (Jin-woong Jo) and thus assure that his passion for collecting rare books and living in the manner of Japanese nobility will continue unabated. Sook-Hee takes one look at her exquisite new mistress and is overcome with feelings more personal than professional, and she makes it her mission to save the innocent young woman from the clutches of her venal uncle, and deliver her to the waiting arms of the dashing Lord Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha).
Park changes the action of Water’s novel from Victorian London to the early years of the Japanese occupation of Korea, thus adding an extra layer to the filmmaker’s exploration of identity as characters pose in both Western and Eastern garb, mixing cultures almost wantonly. They move in carefully constructed tableaux that, as in that opening scenes, show everything, but reveal selectively. The effect in Park’s able hands is not a disjointed aggregation, but rather a story that builds both dramatically and erotically as the pieces come together. There is portentous irony in a heavy rope hidden in a hatbox, and the warning from mistress to servant to never lie. Irony, too, as a hand placed on a waist chastely ensconced in white lace is as full of potent sensuality as a scene in which Sook-Hee gently rubs a rough spot from her mistresses’ back molar, gently moving her finger back and forth as said mistress reclines in her steaming bath, the picture of pure innocence and unsuspecting seduction.
The formality of cinematic execution renders the imagery all the more intense. The characters onscreen are so often forced to subsume their desires until they are pushed to the breaking point, that when the break occurs, the secrets unfurled, the joke played, and the revenge exacted, the effect is an almost orgasmic release.
Ferociously mischievous, this is film that should not be taken lightly. It will seep into the dark places of your psyche, and titillate your moral compass in disturbing yet delightful ways.