It is frustrating to elaborate on a film as brilliantly idiosyncratic as “The Handmaiden.” I wish I could simply tell you that it is the most convoluted film I have seen all year, but since the dreaded c-word is often tied to lesser movies like “Batman v Superman,” it wouldn’t be right to leave it at that. Park Chan-wook, known to most cinephiles as the filmmaker behind the lauded “Oldboy," has crafted a psychological thriller that could be described in a number of ways, but truth be told, it eludes description. While it is narratively and visually dense, Park assorts every single little detail like chocolates in a box. Any other director might have simply thrown them into a bag and called it a day. Convoluted it may be, but “The Handmaiden,” in all its hyper-erotic, deceptive splendor, is some kind of beautiful that rarely graces the silver screen.
In Japan-occupied Korea, a young pickpocket named Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired to be a maid of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an heiress under the control of her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a collector of old erotica that he forces his niece to read for aristocratic gentlemen. Sookee is not there by coincidence or will; she is strategically placed in the estate by a conman masquerading as Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who plans to marry Hideko and have her committed to an asylum so that he may inherit her fortune. Fujiwara’s plan is complicated by Hideko’s distaste for his romantic and sexual advances, as well as an intensifying relationship between her and Sookee.
I mentioned earlier that this film is pretty dense, but I feel that I must emphasize that. “The Handmaiden” is, shall I say, the plottiest film I have seen all year. This might intimidate viewers who can’t stand darting their eyes up and down between images and subtitles in order to keep up with foreign features, but Park’s grasp on the material (adapted from Sarah Waters’s novel “Fingersmith”) is so strong that the task for English-speaking audiences to quickly scan bottom-frame translations is facilitated, and rewarded, by the director’s intoxicating visual aesthetic. The mingling of luscious imagery with intensely lurid subject matter plays to Park’s strengths, but extravagant mise-en-scène and cinematography is not the endgame here. I cannot think of another recent film where dialogue (half of which is devoted to richly detailed descriptions of sex and other related subjects), sound, music, and the moving image all reinforce each other so heavily. Change or remove any one of these elements, and the film would fall apart at the seams.
Park has, more than any other director I can think of, the uncanny ability to create worlds and characters that exist on two different planes at once: that of reality, and that of dreams. I would tell an uninitiated viewer to take note of how Park’s dynamic camerawork and frenzied editing conjures this paradoxical illusion, but to try and peek behind the curtain where Park works his magic would mean breaking free from the spell he casts on the audience. Watching “The Handmaiden” can be wildly disorienting (did I mention how convoluted it is?), but Park fills every square inch of every frame with something to catch your eye if you ever find yourself shaking your head in confusion. What’s more is that seeing and hearing are not the only senses that are stimulated; smell, touch and taste are triggered in strangely hypnotic ways. Close-ups of Hideko from Sookee’s point of view provoke us to wonder what her perfume must be; how unbelievably soft her porcelain white skin must feel; how sweet that lollipop she sensually inserts into her mouth must taste.
By now, I’m sure you deduced that I’m doing my best to skate around just how complex “The Handmaiden” really is. Fear not though, because everything becomes clear by the film’s graphic third act. And while part of the fun is discovering every twist and turn the film presents from different character perspectives, I find myself appreciating the film not for how intricately structured it is, but for how arresting it is on a sensory level. I probably won’t remember the story, but I will remember the sublime sexuality, the exquisiteness of its symmetrical compositions, the intimacy of the most subtle glances and gestures, the swelling of its romantic score, and the beauty of its emotions. “The Handmaiden” is, above all else, vividly transporting.