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Cannes Review: ‘The Handmaiden’ is a Sexy and Depraved Lesbian Revenge Story from Park Chan-wook

Cannes Review: 'The Handmaiden' is a Sexy and Depraved Lesbian Revenge Story from Park Chan-wook

There’s a memorable sex scene about a quarter of the way through “The Handmaiden,” where Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the young maid tasked with deceiving Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) into marrying the devious con man who masquerades as Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), sleeps with her instead. The passionate moment ends on the brink of sensual bliss, as Sook-hee makes her way between her employer’s thighs. But it’s not the last time the scene plays out, and eventually, Park reveals the naughtier details that come next. This is, after all, a director known for stylized excess. Even in the context of an elegant period piece, his street cred is secure: Park holds nothing back. 

Nor does he seem capable of vanishing into someone else’s material. Having previously reworked “Shadow of a Doubt” for his uneven English-language effort “Stoker,” the Korean director now adapts Welsh author Sarah Water’s “Fingersmith” into his own country’s history, transplanting the setting to 1930’s-era Japan. It’s here that the Count plucks former pickpocket Sook-hee for the assignment of convincing the virginal Hideko to welcome her suitor’s affections. Needless to say, his end game — to have Hideko committed and take her inheritance — isn’t so straightforward. 

Blending his typically elegant camerawork with macabre and sordid moments, Park unfurls this ambitious three-part noir across two-and-a-half hours of violent beatings, gleeful sexual deviance and, as if the filmmaker just can’t resist, a coda centered on mutilation. Such excess has been Park’s chief fixation since “Oldboy,” but “Handmaiden” marks the first time he applies it in the context of a sweeping historical odyssey. Unfurling in the early 1930s with a mixture Korean and Japanese dialogue (color-coded subtitles indicate which is which), the movie upgrades the Victorian setting of the novel to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. The cultural dynamic entailed by that shift, with the two-faced Count actually a Korean coal miner looking to get rich, provides a handy metaphor for the simmering resentment that stemmed from class tensions of the era. 

Ultimately, “The Handmaiden” works as a form of historical fantasy in which love conquers all, but not in the ways one might expect. The film’s second half repeats the initial set of events from a new point of view, redefining the relationships between the three characters before changing them up once more. The elegant colonial architecture of Lady Hideko’s mansion provides an ideal setting for the roaming sense of mystery percolating throughout each scene, while Sook-hee’s voiceover narration adds another layer of intrigue: How much of her recollections should we believe? 

Park takes a few too many pathways into ridiculous extremes during some of the later passages (look out for another one of his trademark octopi). But even the oddball tangents hold a peculiar appeal, including an unsettling sequence that finds the Count auctioning off erotic fiction that he forces his enslaved woman to read aloud in front of several potential buyers. Flashbacks to Hideko’s history of abuse in her childhood tend to drag — but even here, Park has crafted such a marvelous playground that it’s easy to just embrace the atmospheric proceedings, laced with classical music and shadowy lighting, as the deviant scheming continues to thicken from multiple directions. 

It’s almost too easy to pigeonhole Park’s focus on graphic sex and sadomasochistic moments as illustrations of his reductive storytelling tactics, which underscore his preference for shock value under the guise of elaborate filmmaking techniques. It’s true that his exuberance at times masks the shrewder observations about class and gender percolating throughout the material, but ultimately it transforms them into a feminist revenge plot with plenty of cathartic moments. And while it’s a long way from “Blue is the Warmest Color,” the detailed choreography of the sex scenes does generate a surprisingly engaging degree of romanticism. 

Park’s a smarter director than his unsavory tactics might suggest, and while “The Handmaiden” isn’t his most cohesive work, it’s driven by a pointed ideological perspective. Rather than merely sensationalizing corruption, he uses it to give credence to his characters’ wavering moral compasses. No matter its overarching ridiculousness, “The Handmaiden” remains a hugely enjoyable dose of grotesque escapism from a master of the form. 

Grade: B+

“The Handmaiden” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release it later this year. 

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