Handmaiden, The (2016)
Release Date: October 21st, 2016 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Chan-wook Park Actors: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, Hae-suk Kim, So-ri Moon
orean girl Okju (whose name in Japanese is Tamako) (Tae-ri Kim) from Eunpo hurries off to the train to journey to the house of an affluent, well-connected Japanese man – the perverted old Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo). He’s wealthy enough to have electricity routinely in his home (the film is set before WWII, during the Japanese occupation of Korea), he loves books and paintings, and he appreciates his own culture and the foreign yet inspirational components of English institutions so much that he hybridizes the architecture in his massive estate, as well as in his extensive personal library. Tamako is to be Lady Izumi Hideko’s (Min-hee Kim) handmaiden, tasked with various small labors, such as taking her for a walk, drawing her a bath, reading to her, or doing light cleaning. Her basic chores are dictated by Sasaki (Hae-suk Kim), an elderly woman with limited emotions and fleeting compassion.
But nothing is quite what it seems. Tamako is actually Nam Sookee, a master pickpocket and forger, who infiltrates the castle as a maid, in league with conman Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), who plans to seduce Hideko, marry her, and then commit her to an insane asylum – all to steal her $1.5 million fortune. On the first night in her new residence, Tamako discovers that her quarters are little more than a closet, that her master regularly has nightmares about a dead aunt who hanged herself just outside the window, and that the sun never shines around the palatial property – since sunlight ruins paper. As the Count flirts and the uncle looks on disapprovingly (he intends to marry Hideko himself to continue funding his collection), Tamako begins to feel sorry for her mark – and perhaps starts to fall in love.
“I feel a nightmare coming. Sleep here.” The premise could have been a straightforward espionage thriller in the hands of anyone else. But with Chan-wook Park at the helm, “The Handmaiden” becomes a distinctly hyper-psychosexual snake pit of a melodrama. Fujiwara mistreats Sookee, not just to play the part of an elite socialite but also because he likes behaving superiorly; the two women practice kissing and touching one another for educational purposes; and the uncle grooms his young niece for womanhood with vivid recitations of erotic literature.
And then there are twists. Unexpected and nearly indescribable bits of darkly suggestive imagery emerge in slowly escalating fashion, all while identities shift and the chronology of events play out in such a way that everything is revealed to have hidden (or double) meanings – or significance through repetition (the narrative is divided into multiple parts as it relates its “Rashomon”-like, deceptive perspective). There’s voyeurism, bondage, and the unsettling mysteries of “the basement.” There’s also plenty of fakery, lying, betrayal, and graphic sex acts (so explicit, in fact, that it occasionally borders on humorous, especially when close-ups of moist tongues cut away just before penetrating orifices, only to be replayed later from different angles and in full view; these sequences are undeniably self-indulgent). But this is all complemented by plenty of humor and an incomparably depraved, unyielding, violent, rebellious level of creativity – which, one might argue, spoils the intelligence of the plot (following rather closely to Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”), what with its perverseness for the sake of perverseness.
– Mike Massie