Director: Park Chan-wook
Runtime: 142 minutes
Is it really a "return to form" if you never really tumbled from grace to being with? That was the question that lingered in my head as I realized that I was starting to fall for The Handmaiden, the latest opulent melodrama from South Korea's Park Chan-wook. The director's last film, Stoker, was a rare English-debut that was, to me at least, a success despite a few wobbles. That film received mixed reviews, with some questioning if Park to lose his edge. Now, three years later, the director is back with a roaring statement that he's still a force to be reckoned with. Most surprisingly, he accomplishes this not by doubling down on his tendency towards sensationalized violence, but by turning his attention an an intricate web of double and triple crosses.
Adapted from Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, Park transplants the story from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, putting himself back on his home turf. Not that he needed to, seeing as his highly stylized directing is as forceful and confident as ever. Like an immense German cuckoo clock, The Handmaiden is full of little pieces that are exhilarating in their intricate connections to each other.
In the straightforward opening, a young maid named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) arrives at a lavish manor for a reclusive noblewoman and her powerful uncle. But just as Sook-hee gets settled for her first night in service of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), Park pulls the rug out from under us. Sook-hee is not just a maid, but a trained con-artist. Handpicked by fellow con Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), Sook-hee sets out to push Lady Hideko into sham marriage to secure a share of her immense fortune (the majority of which will go to the Count).
If the 10 minute mark of a 142 minute movie seems too soon to break out the big story-telling moves, fear not. Park hasn't gotten impatient to played his hand too soon. He's just laid one of many traps that will steadily contort the narrative in ways that even the most accomplished Cirque du Soleil troop wouldn't attempt.
This dedication to such dense plotting is a big part of what makes The Handmaiden such a thrilling success. Melodrama, in which plot takes precedence over emotion, is sometimes thought of as being lesser. Drama takes the form of Ibsen plays and Philip Roth novels, and melodrama manifests as what we sometimes refer to as "airport novels." Lots of plot, lots of twists, but perhaps lacking in authenticity. But, like Gone Girl (and many of Park's own movies), The Handmaiden makes an emphatic case for dropping the pretense of introspective drama, and just telling a labyrinthine yarn. Right on, man.
And despite plot being of greater importance than character development, Park remains adept at drawing engaging performances from his actors. Most enjoyable, perhaps becuase of the layers of deception at hand, is Kim Min-hee's work as Lady Hideko. Initially cast as a sheltered woman-child defined solely by her naiveté, she eventually takes hold of the film's most thrilling sequence of narrative reversals and switchbacks.
Every bit as compelling is Park's attention to the world his colorful characters romp around in. Regardless of your feelings about his filmography, it's hard to deny that he's an aesthetic magician. Sets and costumes are all sumptuous, and Chung Chung-hoon's restless, prowling camera drinks up every square inch of Hideko's mansion, a beguiling fusion of English and East Asian architecture. Like Hideko's mansion, everything in The Handmaiden is expertly designed to pull you in and take you just up to the point of being scandalized, without ever fully crossing the line into exploitation (well, barring a few scenes). Guided along by Jo Yeong-wook's majestic score, The Handmaiden glides along like the elegant page-turner it originated with.
To go too much further in depth into the three part structure of The Handmaiden is to spoil it. So, to avoid giving away too much, I'll simply throw out a few choice elements and let your imagination do the rest. Ingredients in The Handmaiden include, but are not limited to: unreliable narrators, mercury, a giant octopus, lesbians, Japanese erotica, and an insane asylum. How do all of those fit together? Discovering that for yourself is all part of the fun. The Handmaiden is the cinematic equivalent of one of the clubs recommended by Bill Hader's Stefon character. "This place has everything!" And then some.