Director: Park Chan-wook
Stars: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri
4 (out of 5) Globes
The tasteful and the trashy make acrobatic bedfellows in Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden,” a movie so assured it can do a sex scene where the camerawork is as arresting as the bodies engaged in combat. It should be dodgy, and perhaps it is: Park tackles “Fingersmith,” one of author Sarah Waters’ revisionist stabs at Victorian England, which mix lesbians into the usual morass of fineries and elegant chatter and miserablist grime. Park’s done more than relocate the novel to 1930s Korea; one can charge that he’s taken a sapphic love story and reclaimed it for dudes. When his female heroes finally go “Blue is the Warmest Color” on each other, it’s clear which gender is peering through the lens.
Most of the time, though, “The Handmaiden” is right by their side — an accomplice in their attempt to battle the lesser sex while repainting our vision of the past. It’s so close to them that the first two sections tell the story from each one’s limited perspectives. The first hangs tight with Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a pickpocket who agrees to help a cad, a fraudulent “count” named Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), fleece his way into a marriage with the willowy heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee). She’ll pose as Hideko’s handmaiden, while Fujiwara worms his way into her graces, takes her money then deposits her in a madhouse. Before that can happen, the two women fall in love. That, alas, is only the beginning: When we switch to Hideko’s point-of-view, we learn not all was what it seemed.
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There will be blood, more funny than nasty, although very nasty indeed. That’s a Park staple, he of extreme but secretly enlightened Korean fare like “Oldboy,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and the darkly acerbic vampire anti-love story “Thirst.” So is his attention to detail, his love for loud colors, his ability to wrangle the most out of killer set pieces. This is a very different film than Park and his fans are used to, but he’s more focused and alert than he’s ever been. A scene where Hideko orders Sook-hee to file down a broken tooth, a finger gently wriggling inside the other’s mouth, is a cinematic seduction for the ages.
One can even defend the big sex scene, vag-cam and all. Sook-hee and Hideko aren’t just getting each other off; they spend the entire scene talking, walking each other through each move, marveling over new sensations. It’s a scene that’s self-aware, fitting in with a movie that’s all about taking down the patriarchy. The men are louses and crooks and sadists; in one of many key digressions, we see Hideko forced to address a clandestine room of horny men, reciting lesbian poetry intended only for a male audience.
Does that make the entire movie woke? It’s debatable. But it’s not merely “feminist” in the manner of certain men — the ones who go out of the way to brandish their feminist bona fides and only make one suspect they’re trying to obscure their inner bro. Park really seems to enjoy it as his women destroy their despicable overlords, eking out a brave new world, away from the things of men. It’s a giddy thing, this movie, from stem to stern, right on down to its hilarious and loaded final shot.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge