Perversely erotic, viciously violent, narratively twisted, deceptively comedic, beautifully icky, The Handmaiden is everything anyone could possibly want out of the latest feature by Park Chan-wook. The Korean master has proven since Old Boy that he knows exactly how to grip and divert audiences, manipulating them like putty and giggling as they fall for his traps. The Handmaiden almost plays like a Brian De Palma movie with its bitterly dark wit and cinematic games of manipulation. It would feel like homage were it not for the fact that Park has always shared those tendencies/obsessions. This is just his most lurid potboiler to date, so the De Palmaness is more obvious.
The narrative is one of constant misdirects. At first it seems to set up a gothic romance as an innocent young woman comes to work at a creepy and possibly haunted mansion. That’s dropped almost instantly though. The woman (Kim Tae-ri) turns out to not be so innocent at all, but a thief collaborating with a con man (Ha Jung-woo) to manipulate a damaged aristocrat (Kim Min-hee) out of her fortune. Kim poses as a handmaiden and helps Ha seduce the fragile woman, with plans of dumping her into an insane asylum and splitting the fortune after a quick marriage. Unfortunately things get complicated when the two women fall in love. At least, that’s what the movie appears to be about for an hour. After that a twist is revealed and Park doubles back to retell the whole tale from a quite different and far more nasty and perverse perspective.
On a certain level, The Handmaiden is an expertly constructed mind game of audience manipulation. On another, it’s a beautifully crafted romantic thriller. On yet another, it’s a borderline pornographic tale of sexy-sex. On yet still one more level, it’s about how men trap women in boxes as erotic objects, which can be overcome with strength and determination. Oh and there’s some graphic torture in there too. Park Chan-wook has delivered another blast of lurid thrills laced with enough dark humour and intelligence to offer something for any viewer willing to engage with his visceral roller coaster of almost painterly perfect imagery. Those who love what the filmmaker does will be elated. Others will be shocked and appalled. Regardless, no one will ever forget what they’ve seen, no matter how hard they scrub their eyeballs.
Read our interview with director Park Chan-wook here.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2016 Coverage.