The Most Beautiful Fraud: The Handmaiden

You always want to end a film festival with a bang, and Chan-Wook Park’s new epic, The Handmaiden, allowed me to do that at the Chicago International Film Festival both literally and figuratively.  Park is a household name amongst American film buffs, almost single-handedly vaulting South Korea to the upper echelon of movie-producing countries; so it was to be expected that his latest — a sprawling adaptation of a best-selling novel, financed by Amazon and featuring a lot of titillating sexual business, would be well-attended.  The screening I went to was standing room only, and it was a weird treat to see so many people lined up to watch a period piece, no matter what the trappings.

The Handmaiden is based on Sarah Walters’ 2002 high-pulp romance Fingersmith, with its era and setting altered from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, but its erotic-thriller nature left intact, and, for that matter, amplified considerably.  It’s a real curiosity how Park landed on this particular book to base his first large-scale costume epic (The Anarchists is also a period piece, but it was made before Park could command the kind of budgets this sort of sweeping saga demand), but it’s a surprisingly good fit; there’s lots of absurd happenings going on here, but nothing that doesn’t fit the overall tone of the source.

I’m not generally too concerned with things like spoiler alerts, but I’m going to tread pretty carefully describing the plot of The Handmaiden.  For one thing, it’s a new film, not yet slated for wide release, and it’s likely to command a pretty sizable audience who may not have read the book and wouldn’t appreciated its twists and turns being ruined.  For another, The Handmaiden is pure pulp and functions on nothing but plot; everything from its structure to its character descriptions are inextricably wound up in what happens, and it’s hard to even talk about without giving away important aspects of the story. That’s because The Handmaiden is, at its purest essence, nothing but a fancy-dress caper movie.  For all its highfalutin elements, it’s a heist picture in the grand old ’70s tradition, with an elaborate, unwieldy, enjoyably overcomplicated plot that depends on you forever guessing if someone is who they say they are, if someone’s motivations are what they appear to be, and if what we think we’re seeing on screen is really what we’re supposed to be seeing.

That said, I’ll provide the briefest description of the story:  a Korean confidence trickster posing as a Japanese nobleman (Ha Jung-Woo) is planning an elaborate sting against a wealthy, eccentric Japanese colonist (Cho Jin-Woong).  The con requires him to employ the services of Sook-Hee — a young thief raised by a family of criminals — to infiltrate the rich man’s household and serve as a handmaiden to his beautiful niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee).  However, everything changes when Hideko and her handmaiden become attracted to one another.  That’s the most basic set-up; from there, it all turns into a spider’s nest of shifting alliances, concealed identities, internecine schemes, and Rashomon-style retellings.

Structually, The Handmaiden is presented in three acts, each of which ends with a blast and ushers in the next act, which retells the previous events with new details and a new perspective that change the way we understand these characters.  It’s drawn directly from the book, and keeping the format was a clever choice by Park; the running time of the movie is nearly two and a half hours, but the pace is extremely brisk, and things never have a choice to slow down before we get another act break and it’s off to the races again.  As a caper, The Handmaiden is just about watertight, and until it bogs down into some of the director’s trademark gory vengeance schtick at the end, it’s almost flawless in terms of story — and that’s quite an accomplishment, considering that in retrospect, like most caper movies, the plot doesn’t really make a lick of sense.  It’s also flawlessly acted, with nary a weakness in the lead roles; only Cho Jin-Woong is notably gassy, and even that fits his characters.  Ha Jung-Woo makes a terrific rogue, and the female leads are spectacular, particularly the breathtaking, tightly controlled Kim Min-Hee as Lady Hideko.

However, once you get past the characters and the story — and why should you? — there are a lot of rough patches.  As sumptuous as the costumes and the sets are in The Handmaiden, it rarely goes outside, and Park never really gets a chance to stretch his visual legs; for a director so invested in cinematic fireworks, there’s only a few scenes that really get your eyes to pop.  That’s still more than most directors give you, but Park has only himself to blame for getting our hopes up.  Anyone searching for deeper meaning in The Handmaiden is really just making it up.  There have been multiple attempts by space-filling critics to give the movie some depth by cramming a narrative about colonialism or queerness onto its juicy, squishy frame, but honestly, there’s nothing there:  this movie is as shallow as any other caper flick, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  Any messages about oppression or empowerment are drowned out by making the villains complete mustache-twisting cartoons, and while Park touches on a couple of interesting historical crimes about the Japanese occupation in World War II — particularly the way certain Chinese and Korean infants were essentially sold off and raised as Japanese — he never bothers to make it anything more than window dressing.

There’s also, of course, the matter of the endgame, where Park — as restrained as he’s managed to be in recent years — pulls out the stops, returning to the theme of bloody revenge that has marked almost all of his best-known work in a way that’s pretty hard to stomach, and in which the lesbian romance between the two women blows right past sexy romance and into full-blown cheeseball erotica with all the doors open.  Again, not that there’s anything wrong with this approach; Park is always at his least interesting when he tries to make a point about something, and the sexytime stuff is nothing if not spectacularly well-executed.  If you take The Handmaiden at face value, as a big, dramatic, occasionally off-the-rails erotic caper movie, you’re going to get tons of enjoyment out of it.  It’s only the attempt (by viewers, by critics, or by the director himself) to read deeper meaning into it that results in awkward moments.

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