Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a jaw-dropping, pulse-quickening mash-up, a cruel lesbian love triangle set in turn-of-the-century Korea with thorny roots that stretch through the Earth’s core to the Victorian moors. Our setting is a dark mansion decorated by a madman, Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), who mixes tatami mats and heavy candelabras. The maid of the title, local thief Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) — now renamed Tamako by her Japanese masters — scurries about his insane manor in a traditional Korean hanbok, or robe. Her mistress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), lounges around in white lace dresses and satin ball gowns dyed poisonous shades of purple and green. Sook-Hee, who’s been hired by the wicked Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to drive the wealthy woman into his arms, and then into an insane asylum, narrates the first half of the film. Hideko narrates the second. And when the ladies fall in lust, Park’s already over-the-top melodrama blooms into a romance unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s cerebral smut, so bold and deliberate that just before Sook-Hee and Hideko switch POVs, the ladies strip naked and 69 — a pivotal moment of connection. I gasped, “How is this not rated X?!” And then my brain kicked in: Whoa, Park picked this position ’cause, like, a 69 looks the same from both of their angles.
The Handmaiden’s three fully nude scenes are startling because everything around them is so layered and constrained, from the secret that keeps Sook-Hee acting like an innocent to the costumes that cover almost every inch of skin. One of the dirtiest scenes in the movie takes place when Hideko is on a stage and fully dressed. A glimpse of her ankle-length red slip under a snow-white kimono is as carnally suggestive as a leopard print bustier. Park is obsessed with making us imagine the feel of Hideko’s fastidious clothes. He drools over her five drawers of gloves in every texture from pink calfskin to shiny black leather — a hat tip to British author Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, which inspired the script — and when Sook-Hee slowly unbuttons the back of Hideko’s dress, she sighs, “Ladies truly are the dolls of maids.” Then Hideko repays the favor, spinning her servant girl around and lacing her into a corset so tightly that the street urchin gulps.
During this dress-up sequence there’s a quick shot of both beauties from behind, their hair in twin twists like Park is playing into porn fantasies. Yet he respects them as individuals, even when we’re not sure who they really are. The real Sook-Hee isn’t this ninny who scrambles around the estate like a country goat giggling inanities like, “Oh, your toenails have grown much longer since the Count arrived!” (A line the Count himself ordered her to say — what woman would think that sounded romantic?) Yet the demure Hideko feels like she’s hiding something, too. When Sook-Hee chirps, “Every night in bed, he thinks of your ... face,” Hideko mumbles, “Why in bed, I wonder?” Could any woman be that naïve?
In their intimate scenes, Park sets the mood with sound effects and surprisingly unexpected angles of what we can’t see. Early on, he uses a goofy pretense as an excuse for Sook-Hee to stick her thumb in Hideko’s mouth, and cranks down the sound until all we hear is the scritch-scratch of skin on tooth and our own panic that the person next to us can hear our heartbeat. During another seduction, he puts the camera between Hideko’s legs and zooms so close to her and Sook-Hee’s faces that we can see their perfect pores. It’s almost like he thinks if he pushes in enough, we can see into their hearts — and find out the things they can’t even say to each other. It’s not just their mutual attraction. It’s that they’ve both spent a lifetime assuming true love isn’t for them, and seem almost embarrassed to discover they believe in it after all. Their first sex scene is a comedy of pretense. As Hideko allows Sook-Hee to nibble on her breasts, she squeals, “Keep doing it like the Count would!” when they, and we, know the Count is the last person they want in bed.
Park pokes fun at men like the Count who think they understand female desire. Ha’s Count swaggers around the estate convinced — despite zero evidence — that Hideko and Sook-Hee’s lives are centered on him. When Hideko proves hard to seduce, he complains to her pervy Uncle Kouzuki that “her eyes have no fire.” If they don’t light up for a handsome man like him, they don’t light up at all — it never occurs to him she might burn for someone else. Later, when he assures Hideko that women feel the greatest pleasure when taken by force, she inwardly rolls her eyes. And Uncle Kouzuki is in no position to give advice. His knowledge of women comes from scrolls of porn that rhapsodize about “jade gates” and “curtains of flesh.” When his, er, literary society of men in tuxedos hear his stories read aloud, they fan themselves and swoon, all over imaginary women who don’t exist.
But we’re not much smarter. We also bring assumptions into this romance and assume we know way more about these backstabbers than they do themselves. During the second half of the film, Park rewinds scenes and plays them again from new angles to show us what we missed, both factually — by going into the room instead of nervously pacing outside — and emotionally, like when he films the girls running across a meadow first as an aerial shot, and then a second time, running alongside them in the grass. One perspective makes them look small. The other makes their smiles look huge.
Yet Park, too, is a man writing about female desire — the same man whose breakout film, Oldboy, had a daughter falling in love with her dad (under mind control, but still). Waters’s original novel, set in the English countryside, was feminist to the bone. Park’s wrapped the story in Eastern clothing, but kept its spine. He doesn’t just empathize with troubled women like he did with Mia Wasikowska in 2013’s too-stiff Stoker, a primeval version of the fully evolved story he’s telling now. Stoker felt like it was all about girlhood without understanding it at all — he stood up for women by turning them into victims.
The Handmaiden allows its leads to rule the show, or at least convince themselves they’re in control even though the audience quickly learns better. Trying to keep pace with the plot is the most fun I’ve had at the movies in months. Still, after a perfect penultimate scene, Park — the director who once made an actor eat a live octopus — can’t resist going too far. He adds a tacked-on nude coda that feels motivated more by his own libido than the characters’. Suddenly, I realized Park hadn’t completely stepped back and let the ladies rule their own romance. He’d been in the movie the whole time personified by that other naughty yarn-spinner, Uncle Kouzuki. “I’m just an old man that loves dirty stories,” Kouzuki insists. Admit it: We also love hearing them.