Korean movies don’t talk about homosexuality. Homosexuality is legal in South Korea, but a majority of people still disapprove, so it seldom comes up in either polite conversation or cinema. It’s a big deal, then, for a director of Park Chan-wook’s stature to make The Handmaiden, a film centered on a lesbian romance, which is playing in Grapevine and slated for expansion to Fort Worth. However, you figure the guy who made Oldboy and Stoker isn’t going to make a tender little love story. Instead, this nasty, perverted, and highly enjoyable erotic thriller is the most ferocious movie about matters of the heart since Dangerous Liaisons.
Adapted from Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, the script shifts the setting from 1860s London to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. Nam Soo-kee (Kim Tae-ri) starts out as an illiterate pickpocket who fakes her way into a job as a personal maid to Lady Hideko Izumi (Kim Min-hee), a wealthy Japanese heiress who has spent her life confined to her estate by her book-collecting ogre of an uncle (Jo Jin-woong). An urbane Korean con artist styling himself as Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) means to marry Lady Hideko and lock her up in a madhouse after he gets her money, and he’s planted Soo-kee in her home to make sure the fragile and highly sheltered lady runs off with him. But the two women fall in love and share a night of blindingly passionate sex, and then a second, far meaner twist happens that leaves Soo-kee in a cold, lonely place plotting bloody revenge.
That’s a familiar spot for a character in Park’s films. The director has always had a sharp visual sense, but he’s operating at an astonishing pitch here even for him. His camera prowls with icy precision through the sumptuous halls and gardens of the lady’s estate, and he executes a number of breathless montages, one with a series of fades to black and another intercut with repeated shots of Lady Hideko eating one grain of rice at a time from a bento box. A visual motif of buttons and beads runs through the film, including a kinky way at the very end. So skilled is Park that you readily indulge him the occasional pirouette for effect as he and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon create visuals of great beauty and also a number of startling images, from a lady in a white kimono strangling herself while wearing black leather gloves to a sex demonstration involving a life-sized marionette that’s both wondrous and deeply unclean. The filmmakers depict male sexuality as loathsome, which contrasts with the lyrical lesbian sex scenes and partially mitigates their length and explicitness.
That said, Park still runs into the intractable problem of men directing movies about lesbians: They always show either too little sex or too much. This one errs on the side of too much. It’s hot, though, with the two actresses committing to the scenes and the nudity involved. (There’s still a bit of a stigma in South Korea against actors who get naked on camera.) The four principals are all excellent, with Ha playing up his character’s casual brutishness but cutting that with some clowning in the scenes where the count tells Soo-kee how to act like a maid. Kim Tae-ri shows flashes of a servant’s cunning underneath the docile exterior, but it’s the ethereal Kim Min-hee who owns this show as she reveals layers of treachery underneath the lady’s soft, well-spoken exterior.
The tightly plotted script co-written with Chung Seo-kyung is tied together by characters repeating other people’s lines in different contexts, a theme from Waters’ novel. (The S&M bits, though? That’s all Park. He likes that stuff.) Different-colored subtitles indicate whether the characters are speaking Japanese or Korean, because it’s significant every time someone switches languages here. When Lady Hideko’s uncle threatens early on to banish her to his basement, whatever you imagine is nowhere near as bad as the reality turns out. That basement is where Park devises a delicious comeuppance for the villains of the piece, a burst of gory violence that the director’s fans will easily recognize but also one that allows him to achieve an atypical happy ending. One of the characters here says, “Beauty is always cruel.” That’s certainly the case in Park Chan-wook’s films, and in The Handmaiden, his vicious artistry has made its masterpiece.
Starring Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Written by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung, based on Sarah Waters’ novel. Rated R.[/box_info]