If The Handmaiden gets too complicated, immerse in the upholstery. Park Chan-wook’s first movie since 2013 revels in double crosses and kink, moving confidently to a conclusion that if not exactly faithful to Fingersmith honors the Sarah Waters novel’s spirit and respects devotees of Victorian interior design. The director of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance has created a thriller whose convolutions prove rewarding for those who stick around. Distrust, however, the claims that The Handmaiden is a touchstone of queer cinema. It’s Bound with period flavor, set in foreign lands.
Kim Min-hee stars as Hideko, a young woman in 1930s Japan kept a virtual prisoner by her uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a buyer of rare books who has brought her up to read porn aloud (sample title: “Decadent Girls Who Sell Lingerie”). An orphaned Korean scam artist (Ha Jung-woo) conceives a plan whereby Hideko will install his pickpocket ally Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as her maid while he worms his way into Hideko’s heart for the purpose of marrying her, taking her fortune, and sending her to the loony bin. “His ties to the colonial government even let us use electricity!” the suitor crows. Like Zhang Yimou at his most refulgent, Park treats the film’s first third as color-drenched conventionality as the inexperienced Hideko seems to fall in love with Sook-hee, whose butterfingers are so smooth that, in The Handmaiden‘s silliest bit of would-be erotics, she can rub down Hideko’s sore tooth while the latter sits in a tub of scented water. She’s also an expert pedicurist.
To divulge more of the film’s twists would be malpractice, I suppose. As in Bound and a myriad noir flicks, characters aren’t who they say they are and expectations change; even cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon gets into the spirit of the proceedings, often giving the movie’s final two-thirds the denatured tones of a horror film. I wasn’t bored watching The Handmaiden, but after an hour of skullduggery and toenails I got restless. The movie isn’t about anything except its own ingenuity. The politics of the Japanese incursion into Korea are referenced without resonating beyond motivation, and even this is a stretch: the Count could be any schemer who wants to eat the rich by joining them. An, um, interrogation late in the picture drags; often Park luxuriates in cruelty as if it were a set of expensive sheets (he does, however, include a shot of a giant octopus writhing in an aquarium, so there’s that).
As for the sex, it has the pneumatic precision of performers choreographed by a male director; it’s the only explanation for why the panting and thrusting shown in The Handmaiden and 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color aren’t as salacious as Park and Abdellatif Kechiche, respectively, think. The depiction of convincing sex in good recent queer movies has depended on a sense of pent-up aching rivers (Andre Téchiné’s wonderful Being 17) or an expression of class triumphing over class (Joey Kuhn’s wildly uneven Those People). Although The Handmaiden certainly conveys Hideko and Sook-hee’s relief and hunger, they figure in a movie devoted to sensation. Lesbian hookups, blood, and plotting in an exotic remote era – The Handmaiden is queer in a facile way. “Men use the word ‘mesmerizing’ when they wish to touch a lady’s breast,” Hideko remarks late in the picture. I can’t best this description of Park’s method.