If you know Park Chan-wook from anything, it's likely his 2003 film Oldboy, a South Korean action-mystery-thriller with an incest twist that blew minds. It was one of very few movies that roused in its violent moments and shocked in its darkest moments with equal velocity.
In the 13 years since, Park has remained busy. He dipped into the English language with 2013's Stoker, another sexually driven thriller, and now is back on the highest end of the art film scene with the alluring, thoroughly blush-inducing The Handmaiden.
It's the adaptation of a 2002 novel set in Victorian times, Fingersmith, that moves the action to Japanese-occupied Korea and turns the sexuality up to 11. In doing so, especially with a darkly comedic touch, Park takes the classic love triangle we've seen before and subverts expectations. The women are uncertain but crafty, the men are sex-starved yet money-driven, and the end result feels earned rather than prescribed.
Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a thief who is persuaded by her boss, the faux-Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to become the handmaiden to the wealthy Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Hideko lives with her uncle, who auctions off erotic literature to the highest bidder and wishes to marry his niece; Fujiwara wants Sook-Hee to help seduce Hideko into marriage and then have her committed to an asylum, giving them access to her vast fortune.
That's the setup; what follows is a story told from different perspectives, adding depth—and, at times, a bit of unneeded length—to a mid-movie twist that in another era could've served as a vaguely satisfying ending. It all comes with a healthy dose of writer-director-producer Park's dark humor, in which a bunch of tuxedoed elites gape and moan at an erotica reading and an aborted hanging is interrupted by one character's rage at being double-crossed.
But even more than the comedy is how Park depicts his lengthy, detailed sex scenes. Many are depicted as liberating moments of female empowerment, especially an oft-revisited tryst between two women embracing their own attractions and arousal. But then there are the aforementioned rich men who sit, slack jawed and increasingly turned on, as a young lady recites—and reenacts—pornographic scenes.
These are exaggerated and comical, for sure, but they also seem to be mirroring his audience's potential state of mind. Or perhaps they're more about shining a light on the director himself; does he feel like the old man conducting these readings, forcing the young woman to titillate the crowd? Maybe he's just remarking that all erotica is, at its core, a little absurd.
Either way, Park coaxes brilliant performances out of all of his leads. Both Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri are terrific, bringing a deep honesty to their love scenes and the eventual understanding of their power and influence as women. Watching them make a connection amidst all the insanity, and both actresses reinforcing its realness despite all the conniving, gives the movie a proper foundation to rest upon.
That's the ultimate takeaway from The Handmaiden: while the traditional elements of storytelling are timeless, just a tweak here (or an intimate, sweaty lesbian lovemaking session there) can make the old feel new again.