Domestic service is a full-contact, no-holds-barred endeavor in Korean cinema. It goes back to 1960, when the title character terrorized a middle-class respectability-craving family in Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid. In 2010, Im Sang-soo turned the tables in favor of the wealthy elite with his in-name-only remake. Now we journey back to occupied 1930 Korea, where a rigid class system is still very much intact. However, viewers should make no assumptions regarding who has the upper hand in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Sook-hee adapted rather well when she was adopted into an Oliver Twistian family of pickpockets and con artists, so she readily agrees when “Count Fujiwara,” a fake Japanese nobleman, recruits her for a caper. She will go undercover as the cloistered Lady Hideko’s latest maid. After gaining her Lady’s trust, Sook-hee will help Fujiwara seduce and marry her, so he can abscond with her inheritance after committing her to an insane asylum. Yet, much to the surprise of both women, a romantic attraction slowly boils over between them. In fact, Sook-hee considers warning Lady Hideko about her eventual fiancé’s intentions, until she suddenly finds herself committed to the asylum in Hideko’s place.
Furious at their betrayal, Sook-hee vows to avenge herself on her lover and her accomplice. End of part one. There will be two more parts, each featuring plenty of further curve balls. Part two backs up, establishing Lady Hideko’s backstory and showing us the key events of Sook-hee’s downfall from her perspective. By the time we get to part three, all bets are off.
It is fair to say Handmaiden is inspired by Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. Part one tracks pretty closely with the source novel, but parts two and three are almost entirely the creation of Park and co-screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung. The twists and counter-twists come faster than the double- and triple-crosses, which makes it all greatly entertaining.
Yet, perhaps the most shocking thing about Handmaiden (especially as a Korean film) is its sexual explicitness. At times, it resembles Blue is the Warmest Color, but with a plot—in this case, one cribbed from Dangerous Liaisons and The Sting. This film will often leave you slack-jawed, but for very different reasons.
Nationwide talent search discovery Kim Tae-ri is indeed quite the find as Sook-hee. She is all kinds of intense, in all the ways you might imagine. Kim Min-hee perfectly counter-balances her with her commanding ice queen presence (when she thaws, the film gets steamy enough to scald the skin). Ha Jung-woo continues to display remarkable range and flexibility, this time around oozing sleaze from every pore as the caddish Fujiwara.