Revenge, as the saying goes, is a dish best served cold. There is little warmth to be found in Park Chan-wook’s brilliant The Handmaiden, but the filmmaker makes sure to serve bunches of wit and sexy fun along with it. It is essentially a dark tale, however, that sits comfortably alongside Park’s other work, like Oldboy, although less violent.
Park and co-writer Chung Se-kyung adapted Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith, but transposed it from Victorian England to Korea in the 1930s, when it was occupied by Japan. The main characters are all Korean, but an underlying theme is their love-hate relationship with the culture of their oppressors.
Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the title character, is a Korean orphan who was raised by a larcenous family to be a pickpocket. She is recruited by a handsome swindler, who goes by the name of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to be handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an heiress raised by her uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), as a virtual prisoner in his mansion. Hideko performs as a reader of rare pornographic books for wealthy Japanese who then purchase the books from Kouzuki at auction. Hideko took over this role after her aunt, who had performed it previously, hanged herself. Eventually, Kouzuki plans to marry his niece for her fortune. In spite of Hideko’s acquaintance with eroticism from her readings, including sado-masochism, she has had no sexual experience of any kind.
Fujiwara’s own plan is a con that will thwart Kouzuki’s plan. He wants Sook-hee to help him seduce Hideko, marry the heiress for her money, but then make off with all of it – save for a payment to Sook-hee – by dropping her off at a clinic for the insane. Hideko already knows Fujiwara as her tutor, but thinks he is a Japanese aristocrat, as does Kouzuki, who hired him as her tutor and also to write the “rare” erotic books that he sells at the readings. Actually, his “Japanese” identity is also a con; Fujiwara is no count, but an impoverished Korean hoping to dupe Kouzuki out of the treasure coveted by both of them. As an additional irony, Kouzuki is himself Korean, but is ashamed of it for its “ugliness”, and he fakes a Japanese lineage to impress his clientele.
The film, throughout, is a sumptuous delight of rich colors, textures and design. We can almost inhale the luxury, which helps us through the languorous pace of the first half, until – in a jaw-dropping moment – the story is turned virtually upside down. It is Park’s own con on the audience. The rest of the film backtracks on the entire first part, revealing a double-con, but this time on Sook-hee. But then the film concludes, most deliciously, with yet another con, one that suggests – somewhat shakily – that there is a kind of justice to be found here.
While Sook-hee is the central character, it is Hideko who gets our sympathy. She had been a prisoner of her uncle’s since childhood, and had been put on display for the salacious appetites of rich, decadent strangers. While her sexual awakening is integral to the story, it is stylishly filmed and deliriously erotic. These lovers are hot. But Park is no pornographer. The sex scenes are delayed until well into the story, and are more effective for that. Even the one that closes the film – kinky and wild – doesn’t seem gratuitous.
Park’s visual flair is ambitious, dwelling over sumptuous interiors in ravishing detail. The art decoration, by Ryu Seong-hie, was a prizewinner at Cannes. Even more impressive is the editing, by Kim Jae-bum and Kim Sang-bum. When two characters speak, we usually see both their faces, so nothing is lost from their rich performances. And the close-ups – spare, swift and wordless – are uncannily precise.
Film is more than ever an international language, and Park’s work shows influences from many artists of the past. His cynical view of human nature recalls Billy Wilder, while the use of subliminal editing, suggestive of repressed sexual desire, made me think of late Bunuel, especially Belle du Jour. Park, however, doesn’t keep his actors “repressed” for long. His use of nudity and explicit sex would probably make the “Spanish Master” faint dead away.
Finally, one of the film’s witty touches relies on a classic situation: how do you get your intended victim to finally sip from that drugged drink you served? The answer is so simple you’ll kick yourself.