Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) returns to Korea with one of his best movies in years. The Handmaiden takes place during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s where a young thief, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), goes undercover as the personal servant to a wealthy, but mentally unstable Japanese woman named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee; Right Now, Wrong Then). Sook-hee’s friend and fellow thief (Ha Jung-woo; The Yellow Sea) poses as a Japanese Count so that, with Sook-hee’s help, he can marry Hideko and then have her declared legally insane, inheriting her family’s wealth for himself with a cut of the earnings going to Sook-hee.
The delicate approach taken to Hideko and Sook-hee’s relationship is easily the most shocking part of the film. Not that what is displayed is surprising, but rather who it is coming from. Park is known for his twisted violence and his often perverted characters. He has never shied away from portraying sadism onscreen which makes the genuine sweetness of the romance completely unexpected. As Sook-hee cares for Hideko, she sympathizes with her plight and becomes attracted to her naivete. Both are inexperienced, but they discover themselves with and through each other. Even as it becomes explicit, their relationship creates a much softer, and welcome, core to the film.
When the times comes, Park quickly moves into his signature perversion. Characters have deeper motivations than what is first implied and noble pastimes are shown to have unseemly roots. Fortunately, the transgressions are displayed with a light tone. Park has the temperament of a child gleefully flipping through an adult magazine, excited more at the idea of breaking the rules than the actual acts themselves. This gives the film a much needed levity that creates laughter where on paper it could produce disgust.
What’s amazing is Park’s ability to blend these conflicting tones. The film is at times tender, as a romance grows between Hideko and Sook-hee, comedic, when the Count struggles to court Hideko, and, of course, violent. Park separates the film into distinct segments, mirroring the book the film is adapted from, to prevent the tonal shifts from becoming jarring. Furthermore, he uses them to add much needed variety. The film is 144 minutes long but rarely drags as each chapter reframes the audience’s perspective. With each section, more information is revealed and deceptions prove deeper than ever expected. The Handmaiden is a serpentine thriller that is as playful as it is twisted.