In The Handmaiden, Park Chan-Wook challenges the concept of “gratuity” through the ripest, most succulent forms of seduction. His three-act con stings with a dangerous eroticism spun from three differentiating viewpoints, whose interpretations vary depending on gender, investment and ego. Blossoming romanticism erupts in spurts that are nothing short of stunning, but at a daunting two-and-a-half hours, there’s only so much backstabbing and nipple-licking that Chan-Wook’s characters can tease. Underground literary sex clubs, torture chambers, explicit verbal descriptions of the female anatomy – did I mention there’s a robbery somewhere in this scintillating lesbionic fantasy? A long-winded, repetitive, yet astonishingly beautiful fantasy that’s light on suspense, and heavy on “wait, where are those silver bells going?”
Chan-Wook’s tale of love and money takes us to a Korean mansion where Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and her literary goldmine reside, under the watchful eye of Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong). Lady Hideko is only a young girl, but her novel riches attract the attention of many distinguished gentlemen – including Uncle Kouzuki, who plans to marry Hideko and inherit her wealth. That’s if her new handmaiden Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) doesn’t steal her heart first, before the dastardly Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) can spin his own greasy charms. As the plot thickens, Sook-Hee, Count Fujiwara and Uncle Kouzuki learn there might be more to Lady Hideko than the innocent shut-in lets on, especially where her loyalties lean.
What The Handmaiden does better than any erotic thriller I’ve seen in years is simple – seduction. Whether Chan-Wook’s characters are suckling on a finger or scissoring furiously in a whimsical explosion of sweat and passion, seduction remains paramount. Soft-core pornography glows with artistic vibrance (not Skinemax sleaze), arching more suspense than the actual criminal plot at hand – a direct correlation to Lady Hideko’s hypnotic readings for Uncle Kouzuki’s sophisticated audience.
As Hideko eases harsh, detailed phrases about sticky sexual acts out of her pouty lips, onlookers wretch and contort in fits of stimulated elation brought upon by such ensnaring seduction. These “performances” are something to behold, as Hideko dominantly has a firm grip of each man’s sack, despite being held captive by her own Uncle Kouzuki’s painful discipline. It’s a tantalizing power struggle, heightened by sentences that push sexual provocativeness and foolish veils of control.
Spinning off Chan-Wook’s unwavering – yet unsubtly poetic – abuse of linguistic eroticism, his characters are also competing in an understated battle between sexes. Scene after scene, we assume to know who controls what – seemingly men putting women in their place. But as Lady Hideko and Sook-Hee frolic and fornicate, their male counterparts are played for the brash, simple-minded weaklings we truly are.
Women hold all the power – through both sex and emotion – and Chan-Wook’s second greatest accomplishment here is tediously simmering gender perceptions until reaching a tumultuous boil. No clean-cut revenge arc akin to Kill Bill. Just two dainty, pale-skinned nymphs turning a man’s egotistical self-worth into a blinding wall, as the Count becomes crippled by the distraction of his own sexual urges.
Kim Min-hee steals the show as Lady Hideko, a wounded fawn who’s more like one of Adam Wingard’s animal-masked assassins in You’re Next. Her doe-eyed mystique plays into a juvenile game of manipulation that Chan-Wook unravels, as – once again – seduction paralyzes. Min-hee is a sexual monster whose submissive beauty becomes the actress’ greatest weapon, but that’s not to ignore her full-frontal courage when engaging physically with Kim Tae-ri’s titular handmaiden.
This is no lesbian sideshow, no matter how in-your-face Chan-Wook fleshy exposition becomes – sex is a weapon, and also a relationship conduit. It’s never JUST sex, no matter how tangled Hideko and Sook-Hee’s quivering bodies become. It’s never JUST orgasmic groans, but lusty pants and reactionary acts of unequivocal pleasure. Count Fujiwara cockily struts around like a pinstriped gangster, never cognizant of how two woman might be smart enough to trample his dull wits – a cat-and-mouse dynamic that’s preyed upon by the Black Widows who are Lady Hideko and Sook-Hee.
Yet, with all that said, The Handmaiden cannot sustain two-and-a-half hours of the same story, flipped from two main perspectives that eventually lead to a then-telegraphed finale. Sex and seduction keep our jollies rustled far longer then we’d expect (amplified by Chan-Wook’s breathtaking production design), but that still leaves a solid 30 minutes or so before the director presents numerous ending points that only lead to further inevitability. Another dialogue blast. Another naked romp. Another comeuppance. Chan-Wook denies numerous exits in favor of sensual assaulting, only to lose any thrills that might have been attained through Lady Hideko’s maniacal puppeteering. What could have been a masterclass becomes just a mere lesson, speaking through a few exclamatory cries and chocolatey c-words.
Despite my previous paragraph, The Handmaiden is still a film to be watched. Entire scenes prove that Park Chan-Wook is still one of the greatest working filmmakers of today, bound not by conventional wisdom or “acceptable” material. A unique cherry blossom of a period piece finds its roots intertwined with an erotically-charged crime, set to shock and entrance viewers unaware of the free-spirited madness to follow. A cultural appropriation of submission, the male gaze and gender dominance, stretched until storytelling fabrics just begin to tear. There’s no doubt that some will embrace Chan-Wook’s latest as a gleaming cinematic jewel, but to me, it’s just a bit unpolished. It still gets the job done (with grace to spare), only at a slightly more sluggish pace than the filmmaker’s darker, more inviting productions…
The Handmaiden is a sexy, seductive "thriller" that attempts to play the multiple-perceptions game, but misses on being a masterclass because of its daunting length.