Some of the best filmmakers fetishize their art and, in doing so, invite their viewers to do the same. Park Chan-wook embodies that rare type of precision filmmaker whose every shot seems perfectly orchestrated and framed, whose every edit seems to have been worked out even before the sets were built or the actors hired. And yet Park’s erotic thriller The Handmaiden—with its story that, not coincidentally, deals with fetishes—never feels lifelessly premeditated; rather, we realize, early and often, that we are in very sure hands.
The filmmaker of Oldboy and Lady Venegance here applies himself to adapting Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith. Along with co-screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung, Park transplants the story from Victorian-era London to 1930s colonial Korea, where a con man calling himself Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) enlists a female pickpocket named Nam Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) as part of a plot to convince Japanese heiress Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to marry him.
Hideko lives a life of quiet desperation in the sprawling East-meets-West mansion of her creepy Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a book collector with pronounced fetishes of his own, ones that are not entirely bibliophilic in nature. Count Fujiwara intends a slow but sure seduction of Hideko, abetted by Sookee’s whispers in his favor. But the plot thickens when Hideko and Sookee fall into each other’s arms, the first of many surprises in an ever-unfolding plot.
The Handmaiden veers into a rather soulful love story, though a central theme of duplicity keeps us guessing. The women’s alchemic interest in each other also benefits from a social imperative, a feminist desire. It’s a story of power plays, the power men wield over women or can offer to them (“The man who loves you has the power to protect you”), the power women have over men (who Park depicts as rendered dumbstruck by arousal), and the power moves women inflict on each other, among other dynamics (literal power outages in the mansion draw attention to the characters’ figurative power outages and surges).
Park slyly investigates the intersection of pain and pleasure, and the desperate desire to escape social imprisonment, encapsulated in an image of Hideko seen through a tangled web of tree branches. The image also serves the point for which Park reserves his keenest interest: storytelling. When the non-linear plot turns back on itself, subtle variations in the performances by the role-playing characters reflect different narrative points of view on key events.
Those waiting for Park to bust out with kink and violence will eventually get what they came for, but The Handmaiden proves more deeply felt than prurient, a testament to a terrific cast and a cunning director. Every shot, every sequence is designed to perfection and executed just as well, with the insinuating cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon, brilliant art direction by Ryu Seong-hie, and the limber, string-based score of Cho Young-wuk all serving a conspicuously crafty tale.