Korean director Park Chan-Wook has brought you masterful thrillers like Oldboy, Thirst, and Stoker. Later this month, he’ll bring you one of the best films of the year: The Handmaiden. Set during World War II in Korea, this erotic drama follows a young pickpocket, Sookee (Tae-Ri Kim). A crafty con man who calls himself Count Fujihara hires Sookee as a co-conspirator in a plot to rob a wealthy Japanese heiress (Min-hee Kim). Sookee will become Lady Hideko’s new handmaiden, helping Count Fujihara charm the beautiful heiress into eloping with him. There’s just one problem, though — Sookee and Lady Hideko are falling in love.
Based on Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, Park Chan-Wook transposes the story from Victorian England to Korea and Japan. He sets most of the film in and around Lady Hideko’s home: a beautiful hybrid of English and Japanese architecture. The film’s sets are cavernously big, and Park’s luxurious wide angles make the characters seem like dolls inside the looming mansion. Though he’s never made a ghost movie, Park has always had a flair for making spaces feel haunted.
Lady Hideko’s uncle, a collector of erotic literature, is the cruel master of the house. Actor Cho Jin-Woong sneers and spits his way through his performance as the uncle, creating one of the best movie villains of 2016. The character’s ink-stained lips and tufted eyebrows are the strange touches that make him right at home in Park’s twisted filmography.
The Handmaiden fits in just as well. Don’t let the synopsis fool you — this is no Shakespearean comedy or chaste Victorian romance. You have to know going in that this flick is weird. It’s surprisingly funny, too, if a bit mean-spirited for some. And it’s not at all shy about its fetishes: Freud might’ve said the movie has an oral fixation. Full of intimately whispered voiceover and dialogue, the film would put you in the mouths of the characters if it could. That doesn’t stop it from trying, though. The movie’s more intimate moments features close-ups that would make Fifty Shades of Grey blush fifty shades of red.
But this isn’t some pulpy Harlequin story — the romance here manages to be both delicate and sweeping. And it has to be because the movie is pretty long. It also tells its story out of sequence, to weave the mystery a little more tightly. But that core dynamic between Sookee and Hideko is the closest thing the film has to a constant. So when the movie executes its biggest narrative rug-pull, the moment is so intense I actually gasped. This is a romance to savor and believe in, in all its twisted splendor.
And even though the film may be indulgent with its pacing, it never bores. Even when it’s being subtle, Park’s flair for the stylistic makes the movie exhilarating. He heightens every touch, every sound. The Handmaiden is an intimate study in perspective. It lets us see the same events from the eyes of different characters. In doing so, it offers revelations, thrills, creeping dread, and some unexpected laughs. For fans of Asian cinema (or just great movies in general), The Handmaiden is an absolute must-see.
Amazon Studios will release The Handmaiden in New York and Los Angeles starting October 21. If you can’t see it in theaters, catch it when it hits iTunes and other streaming platforms.