Handmaiden, The: One of Year’s Best Foreign Language Films

One of the year’s best foreign language films, Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden represents an artist at the top of his form, helming a stunning feature that may be a career-summation work.

Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Densely textured and gorgeously realized, it’s an art film that operates effectively on many levels: It’s at once a Gothic thriller, a love story, and a revenge melodrama, all laced with strong sexual and violent overtones.

This should not come as a surprise from the South Korean director (previously a film critic), who has already won critical acclaim for his previous features, Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, and Thirst.

Park, like may exiles in Hollywood, stumbled with his English-speaking debut, Stoker, but when placed in the overall context of his entire output, it’s a minor flaw.

Surprisingly, the film’s literary source material is Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, a 2002 novel, which had previously been made into British miniseries, in 2005..

In his screen version, Park has shrewdly transplanted the tale to the 1930s, when Korea was occupied by the Japanese. (The distributor has made it easier for us to apprehend the dialogue, using different colors for the subtitles, indicating the changes from Korean to Japanese language).

Structurally, the Rashomon-like narrative is divided into three parts, each told from a different perspective, often centering on similar events as seen from the subjective POV of the three main protagonists.

But rest assured that in the end, the disparate panels result in a highly unified text, intricately composed of individual scenes and images that are nothing short of brilliant. Living up to its title in both literal and figurative ways, this Handmaiden is a hand-made feature that displays its formalist style in a brilliantly smooth and subtle mode.

The protagonist is a spirited female pickpocket named Sooki, actually named Tamako ( Kim Tae-ri), who gets a job as a handmaiden at the estate of a rich old book collector (Lee Yong-nyeo). She is hired to serve him and Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the young and beautiful niece of his late wife.

Initially, she is unaware of the greedy scheme into which she is pulled. A fake count (Ha Jung-woo). plans to marry the niece and then have her committed to an asylum so that he can claim her fortune.

Appearances deceive, and nothing and no one is what he or she seems to be. The bogus count is a snob, claiming, “I’m not interested in money itself. What I really desire is the manner of ordering wine without looking at the price.” Later we find out that he was raised by a Korean fisherman but pretends to be Japanese; he calls himself Fujiwara.

But he is not the only one engaged in manipulative scheming. The book collector, the fake count’s mentor, harbors similar plan in mind.

The plans spiral out of control, when when Sooki/Tamako falls in love with her target. At first, their bond is based on intimate interactions and confessions, but then it grows into a more explicitly erotic affair, leading to several startlingly blunt sexual scenes between the two femmes.

Unfolding as an intricate puzzle, a good deal of the narrative moves forward without dialogue, through subtle glances, overheard remarks, eavesdropping behind walls or semi-open doors, and reaction shots.

Of the three characters, the most mysterious is Lady Hideko, a woman who was raised from girlhood as a prisoner by the book collector. She begins as a fragile naïve woman who, due to her being locked in this huge estate and its gardens, has had limited experience with the outside world.

The Handmaiden is full of twists and turns in the ways that characters interact with one another and in the speed and facility at which they change (and/or conceal) their identities and hidden desires.

It’s never clear, for example, whether the characters are spying on each other in earnest or in secrecy, as those spied-upon are sometimes aware of being watching, which leads them to modify their intents and behaviors.

Lavish in its expressionistic imagery to the point of being surreal, audacious in its frankly sexual scenes, eccentric and singular in philosophical vision, and occasionally perverse in its storytelling and characterization, The Handmaiden is one of a kind film, an art work that deserves multiple viewings to savor its numerous merits.