South Korean Director Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden is a chef-d'oeuvre of intrigue and erotica. It is a sumptuously artistic tale, exquisitely shot, that will leave you breathless. Park has obliterated boundaries in his career as a filmmaker. From Oldboy to Stoker, he has gone to dark and sensual places that others never dare tread. Adapted from the Victorian novel "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is the best foreign film I have seen this year by a mile.
The setting is updated to 1930's Korea under Japanese colonial rule. A Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) lives an isolated life in the country. She is the virtual prisoner of her brutish uncle, Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woon). A slick con man, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), has engineered an elaborate scam to steal Hideko's fortune. He enlists Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), a nubile girl and master pickpocket, to be her devoted handmaiden. His plan, for Sook-Hee to subtly push the introverted Hideko into his clutches.
The Handmaiden is the most sexually explicit major release since Blue is the Warmest Color. Be forewarned, this one is a barn burner. Park stages titillating interactions that will melt your eyeballs and leave your heart a flutter. He is a master of tension in these scenes. From casual flirtation to full on flesh grinding, this is the definition of adult material. But it is not salacious or cheap. Seduction is an art and a science. As these characters explore each other, the narrative blurs and the mystery deepens. The sex is integral to the story.
The plot is clever and shrouded in layers. We see events from several points of view as the reveals play out. Park's script is spectacularly well-written. I'll liken it to The Usual Suspects or Fight Club. There's a lot going on the surface, but even more than you think once the veil is lifted. I was entranced by The Handmaiden from the opening frame. It has a long runtime, but will not bore you for a second.
The Handmaiden is a technical gem. The cinematography by Chung Chun-hoon is Oscar worthy. The film has a dreamlike quality. It swings from erotic fantasy to heartless violence like a pendulum. The country is bathed in fog, the palatial rooms, sinister and beguiling. The lighting blends seamlessly with the costumes and production design to devour your senses. I was particularly impressed with Park's use of long tracking shots to show the characters moving between spaces, sometimes surreptitiously. It really sold the effect that these people were sneaking around. Masterful techniques are on display here. Park and his production team are true auteurs.
I won't delve into the players. The characters motivations are key to enjoying this story. I will say that their performances are stirring and without abandon. Park's cast fully commits to this film in body and soul. Many actors would not have the nerve to do this. It's one thing to be naked on screen, but entirely more difficult to be naked, dramatic, and effective.
From Amazon Studios, The Handmaiden is required viewing for any true fan of cinema. This material is purely for discerning adults that can appreciate artistry on this level. Sniggering horndogs need not apply. Park has delivered a gothic, twisting, lesbian romance unlike any to grace the silver screen. I was blown away by this film.