‘The Handmaiden’ is a naughty film made by a naughty boy. It’s also a pretty damn clever, beautifully crafted and amusingly nasty one. As he proved in movies like ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Lady Vengeance’, director Park Chan-wook has a knack for elevating trash into art.
Park’s latest almost feels like a Brian De Palma movie in the ways in which the filmmaker uses shifting perspective to toy with audiences while turning lurid pulp into something more playfully intelligent. It’s a wild ride that should please anyone who enjoys the director’s distinct brand of dirty little movie games.
The plot presents itself differently a few times during the twisted three-part journey. At first, it seems like some sort of Korean twist on classical Gothic literature, then pulls that rug to reveal a new tale entirely. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) takes the lead as a lifelong thief masquerading as a handmaiden for the wealthy and isolated Japanese Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). She’s been instructed by a con man (Ha Jung-woo) to help manufacture a love story between himself and the mentally ill woman so that he can marry her and then immediately shove her into an insane asylum and steal her money. Wouldn’t ya know it, Sook-hee starts to fall for Hideko in the process.
Of course, that’s only the first part of a story that’s been split into three chapters, each concealing secrets and offering alternate perspectives. For a while, it looks like Park might have elected to make something resembling a handsome romance rather than his usual genre fair. Naturally, that’s all a ruse. Something more complicated is going on, and even that may not be entirely trustworthy. The movie is a game of audience manipulation for the immensely talented Park. He has a specific movie in mind quite true to his usual style; there are just a few fake-outs and left turns on the way to that path. The result is delightfully lurid, thrilling and darkly comedic. It’s also unexpectedly politicized in complex ways, showing women who are frequently objectified and misunderstood by the men around them actually having the upper hand. Granted, they’re also posed and gazed at through some eroticism by a male filmmaker in the process, but even that feels like a self-conscious wink to the audience.