Hint: it’s “The Handmaiden.”
To call Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s newest crime drama ravishing would be an understatement. It’s lusty to the core and focused on sweating bodies and post-World War II politics with enough twists to make John le Carré blush. But this is Park Chan-wook we’re talking about, after all. He’s less interested in Japan’s machinations against Korea, though those do play a big part in the narrative, and more interested in Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the titular handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress who lives with her smut-loving uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong).
Posing as a Count named Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a swindler hires Sook-hee, a pickpocket from a family of con artists, to pose as Hideko’s maid and convince her to fall in love with and marry Fujiwara. It’s a windy set-up and the clumsiest part of the movie. Park is eager to blaze through his exposition to get to the story’s heart: Hideko’s journey to Sook-hee. The plot isn’t this clear-cut, but it’s divided into three parts. By part two, things take a turn and the movie’s brilliance comes into focus.
As a further layer, the interplay between Korean and Japanese culture plays a huge part in defining Hideko and Sook-hee’s brutal treatment at Kouzuki and Fujiwara’s hands. Just as an example, Hideko is born Korean, raised Japanese, and beaten with metal balls when she doesn’t speak Japanese with perfect diction. Sook-hee is also Korean, though she poses as a Japanese maid. The only problem is she can speak, but not read or write Japanese.
In the hands of a lesser director, these turns would be footnotes to the conflict. With Park Chan-wook, they become inseparable from the movie’s story and structure. Nothing, as a result, feels unimportant. At points, the movie feels like a magic trick. It begins messy and disparate, sometimes difficult to parse out who’s who (Sook-hee is given three names in the first 15 minutes, for example), but with some directorial sleight-of-hand, “The Handmaid” falls into place like the best crime capers. Of course, “The Handmaiden” is a lesbian romance, and a moving one at that, but it could just as easily be a crime drama (Wikipedia calls it an “erotic psychological thriller”). Those cons within cons and plots within plots are just a framework for Hideko and Sook-hee’s burgeoning relationship.
And what burgeoning relationship is complete without go-for-broke sex? Not only do Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee give themselves completely to the movie’s eroticism, but Park Chan-wook does as well. The scenes are graphic, but the women are focused on each other. They play like you would with a new lover and never once cater to an outside gaze. Park shows them in their natural state without veering into exploitation. In fact, “The Handmaiden” marks the first time I’ve cried during a sex scene. It’s that powerful. With Park’s idiosyncratic approach, “The Handmaiden” becomes something truly special.