Park Chan-wook, a writer and director best known for his violent spectacle films like Oldboy, might just be the last person I would have expected to make a historical romance flick. His love for human depravity and how sexual fetishism distorts our reality don’t seem particularly well-suited to the exploration of romantic interest between two people, especially when both parties are women. However, Park not only pulls this off with his new film The Handmaiden, but he does so while still remaining true to his unique sensibilities and crafting one of the most gorgeous and entertaining films of the year, as well as his career.
Set in Victorian era Korea, a period when the country was under the colonial dominion of Japan, The Handmaiden opens on Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a Korean maid recently recruited to serve under Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an aristocratic heiress. But Sook-hee has a secret; she is a pickpocket recruited by “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a con artist who aims to seduce Lady Hideko, marry her, and then have her declared insane so that he can claim all her assets for himself. Sook-hee’s role is to persuade Lady Hideko that the Count is truly the perfect match for her, but what she didn’t count on was that she would begin to fall for the heiress instead.
The three-act structure is bluntly divided with onscreen titles to draw attention to the sharp differences between them in terms of perspective and tone, so while the above synopsis of the first act may sound predictable and rote, that’s because it’s supposed to. The first act break is such a jarring and intense moment that it completely justifies the first act’s predictability, and the film then proceeds to recontextualize what you’ve seen in order to provide layers of understanding and interpretation that this seemingly simple story soon becomes a complex web of intrigue where it becomes increasingly unclear who is playing who and when alliances switch. This is all molded through an incredibly intricate screenplay that weaves motifs and poetic dialogue naturally and seamlessly, providing clarity to the complex machinations with simple moments of profound storytelling slight-of-hand.
This is of course assisted by Park’s cinematographer of choice, Chung Chung-hoon, who does more than just use a visually dynamic camera to create unique and beautiful shots, though there are plenty of those to go around. No, what Chung deserves the most credit for is the very subtle ways in which he uses framing and shot composition to hide key details without being obvious about it—or when he is being obvious about it, using it as misdirecting symbolism of what is happening in the scene. It’s nothing short of brilliant, and combined with the color palette of the lush Korean countryside and the pure colors of a Japanese household this is one of the most gorgeous films you’ll see all year.
It’s difficult to be too much more specific without spoiling the fun of The Handmaiden, but let’s just say that uniformly the performances are absolutely superb, right on down to the seemingly minor roles that later grow into sharper prominence. This is about as tightly crafted as erotic thrillers get, and it is an absolute joy to watch from start to finish. At 145 minutes, the film certainly feels its length, but the lack of a dull moment makes that runtime worth every second. Park fans also needn’t worry that their favorite auteur has given up on gore and disturbing psychology; just wait until the third act. But the fact that he has crafted a love story that can exist in the same space as that darkness is truly remarkable, and The Handmaiden is a testament to the skill of a truly talented filmmaker. This is easily one of the best films of the year, and it would be a disservice to yourself to miss it.