Late in Park Chan-wook’s new, erotic thriller, The Handmaiden, a character concedes: “I’m just an old man who likes dirty stories.” Just? No need to downplay it. The man, a wealthy bookseller named Kouzoki, makes his niece read erotic fiction aloud to other men, enticing them to buy from his extensive collection. That young woman, Lady Hideko, is an heiress and, if Kouzoki has his way, his future wife. The reading lessons he forces on her and the stories she reads — about men and women, their bodies, their sex — are perhaps his vision of the future, looking ahead to the day he and Hideko become their own naughty story.
On the surface, The Handmaiden, which is based on Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel, Fingersmith, is a movie about a group of con artists, all trying to get, or retain, Lady Hideko’s fortunes through sexual wiles that rival the schemes of Dangerous Liaisons. But Park’s vision is a little broader, too. “When I make films, I don’t say that I’m going to subvert this genre or take this genre and play within it,” he told LAist last week, “nor do I ever say I’m going to borrow a certain element from a particular movie or genre or anything like that. I can’t start from that standpoint.” Instead, Park seems to start with certain delectable, suggestive images — a handmaiden using a silver thumb to grind down her mistress’s sharp tooth, for example, and the erotic closeness of this encounter — in order to mine the weird cultural strictures underneath and satisfy his characters’ pangs for transgression.
The Handmaiden is exemplary proof of Park’s mastery, a high point from a director known for his purposeful aesthetic care, even in matters of overwrought sexual melodrama. It’s hard to predict, from the outset, what the director of such unhinged classics as Oldboy and the other volumes of the so-called “Vengeance Trilogy” (Lady Vengeance, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) will be up to. Some of Park’s trademarks, however, are a given. You can expect some content to be a little gross, where half of what’s shocking is the fact that you’re laughing despite being repulsed. You can expect Park’s films to be sumptuous, too — for the excess of beauty to leap offscreen and practically become tactile or fragrant. And you can expect the mix of these elements to add up to an experience that’s less anchored by what the movie’s about than by your experience taking it in. I could recount to you the plot of Oldboy, but the ecstasy of watching it unfold — and Park’s ability to subvert that ecstasy at the right moment, in the worst (meaning best) way — is what really lingers. His films are so satisfying because they are often stories about storytelling, eager to call attention to themselves with voice-overs and narrative tricks, and impatient to show the audience the pleasures of living vicariously through others.
In The Handmaiden, Park moves the plot and setting of Fingersmith from 19th-century Victorian-era Britain to the 1930s and east, to a Korea that’s been living under the occupation of Japan for two decades. Combine the two — Victorianism and political occupation — and you get a movie in which the quest for sexual possession feels as desperate as hunger and as covert as war strategy. The key players are Count Fujiwara and his co-conspirator Sook-hee, a thief’s daughter, who implants herself into Lady Hideko’s life in order to persuade her to fall for the Count’s charms. The plan: marry Lady Hideko to Fujiwara, snatch her inheritance, and then throw her in the asylum.
Sounds simple enough, but in a fabulously pulpy turn of events, Hideko and Sook-hee fall for each other — and Park gives us a seat at the table, staging noisy, explicit sex between the two women with microscopic attention to the details of their bodies, in close-ups that seem to pulsate with their self-discovery and lust. The stakes, for us, are solely in getting to see it — again, the pleasures are vicarious. It isn’t wholly necessary, which risked getting Park in trouble in some circles. When the movie premiered at Cannes earlier this year, at least one critic noted that the movie’s take on lesbian sexuality could inspire criticism reminiscent of that received by recent Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color, whose actresses said afterward that they felt exploited by the director’s insistence on graphic sex.
The Handmaiden, however, makes the characters, and by extension the actresses, seem like they’re knowingly giving of themselves. Being in on the con is of course essential for anyone running a scam; in the film’s sex scenes, Park echoes that by occasionally having his actresses look directly into the camera as they undress or make love, signaling their awareness, batting off any objections. These women are not naive or repressed, but curious, eager, and open. Young Lady Hideko laughs when she learns the words “penis” and “vagina” in Japanese. She takes Sook-hee’s desire and runs with it — exposing an honest lack of knowledge about how sex works, tinged with an eagerness to find out. Park’s camera, excitable and curious, quick to rove when the characters’ psyches get ignited by some new feeling or pleasure, is always egging us on.
For all of the plot’s machinations and swerves, the joy of this movie isn’t in the schemes: It’s in seeing the smooth, swift pleasure with which Park delves into it all. The Handmaiden’s plot is rigorously structured, but I’d be just as content to watch him tackle a story in which fewer things happened outright and we were left to revel in the kinetic strangeness of his stylish images. That’s the desire his most satisfying movies — chief among them Oldboy and this film — incite in their audiences. His films are full of characters who are hungry to get carried away. You can’t help but hunger alongside them.