Starring Kim Min-Hee. In Korean and Japanese, with English subtitles. Rated 18A
There’s a briefly seen octopus and at least one moment of torture in The Handmaiden, in case anyone needed to be reminded that this exquisitely perverse period film is the work of Park Chan-Wook, still best known around here for the mid-2000s vengeance trilogy that included Oldboy. True to form, director Park isn’t content with just giving you the horn with his kinky concoction, which evokes the sumptuous detail and earthy sensuality of Walerian Borowczyk’s ’70s erotica. At the very least he wants to make the male portion of his audience squirm in the process.
The source material is Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, about a con man and his female partner’s plot to bilk an heiress out of her fortune; a plan interrupted, in this case, by some graphic sapphistry. The Handmaiden relocates matters to occupied Korea in the ’30s, which lets Park have some fun with the one unequivocal villain of the piece, an absurdly strict nobleman, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-Woong), who sucks up to the Japanese and devoutly maintains a huge library of rare pornography.
He’s also raising his niece to be his bride. As played by Kim Min-hee, Lady Hideko is a calculating tempest beneath an imperturbable surface, and it’s this shrinking scorpion who’s targeted for an elaborate shakedown by a half-baked “Count” (Ha Jung-Woo) in cahoots with a young pickpocket, Sook-Hee (dazzling newcomer Kim Tae-Ri). It doesn’t take too long before new handmaiden Sook-Hee is doing more for the Lady than just drawing a bath.
The film splits this high-concept raunch into three parts, separated by outlandish plot twists that reorient and dizzy our sympathies, widening the aperture on all of Park’s seemingly rotten but gorgeous characters—except for Kouzuki, who sits in mute agony with his upper-class friends while his much younger betrothed reads to them from the prewar Asian equivalent of Penthouse Forum. It’s one of the hottest scenes in the film, and an entirely vicious way to implicate and humiliate the straight male hegemon sitting both on-screen and off-. As Park’s camera very plainly demonstrates at least twice during this insanely rich and enjoyable film, the dominant POV in The Handmaiden belongs to the vulva.