Puzzle Perfect

Park’s Korean period drama is a joy to watch

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Handmaiden
RPL Theatre
Dec. 8-11
3.5 out of 5

Very few filmmakers guarantee a rollercoaster experience at the movies like South Korean wunderkind Park Chan-wook. I’m not talking the Michael Bay type of “entertainment”. It’s very difficult to assess the direction Park movies will take until late in the game. In fact, he is responsible for one of the best twists of the century, Oldboy’s utterly perverse revenge scheme. There is fucked-up, and there is Oldboy.

The Handmaiden is based on Sarah Waters’ book Fingersmith set in Victorian England. The relocation to 1930s Korea is seamless and adds a culture clash layer missing in the original. Sook-Hee, a young local, is hired to serve as personal servant to Lady Hideko, a sheltered Japanese heiress. Despite first impressions, Sook-Hee is far from a naïve townie. She has been coached by her uncle, a conman, to encourage a romance between him and the heiress. The goal is marry her, lock her in an asylum and split the dough.

What ensues is a series of revelations and double-crossings that make it difficult to guess who’ll come out on top. Each one of the main characters gets the spotlight for a third of the film. Far from redundant, the story deepens every time and new dimensions come to light. Simple scenes grow in complexity and meaning whenever revisited.

The Handmaiden is exquisite to watch. Every period detail has been painstakingly reconstructed, but always with an eye on the story. Also, captions distinguish Korean from Japanese, a detail that provides unexpected nuances (as counterpoint, Son of Saul was robbed of much of its power by careless subtitling).

In the film, male dominance of women is superficial. The patriarchy is subtly but consistently undermined, yet the male characters are too self-involved to notice until it collapses over their heads. I wouldn’t go as far as calling The Handmaiden a feminist film (the male gaze is evident, the camera practically drools over the female actors’ bodies), but there is no question on whose side it is.

A brainy filmmaker by definition, Park Chan-wook fails to inject emotionality to the proceedings, causing some distance with the audience. But the puzzle-like structure of the film is bound to keep you interested for the near two-and-a-half hours it lasts.