South Korean Director Chan-wook Park's latest feature The Handmaiden is an artful showcase in guileful storytelling and sumptuous imagery. Its jet-dark sense of humour and proudly trashy Gothic sensibilities belies a tale that tells of more serious matters – romance and deception. Emphasis on the deception.
In a year that has been such a mixed bag, it's also worth mentioning that this is easily one of the best directed films of 2016; within five minutes you get that warm feeling that you, the viewer, will be in capable hands for the remaining 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Set in 1930s Korea during Japanese occupation, The Handmaiden follows Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), who is hired as a maiden to Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), who lives in the secluded countryside with her creepy lascivious uncle (Jin-woong Jo). But the maid is harbouring a secret. She is a thief who has been recruited by a devious Japanese Count to rob the heiress of her fortune and have her committed. The stage is set for the plan to proceed until the maid and the heiress discover some unexpected emotions
The story is considerably more complicated and enticing than that, but that basic premise allows for riveting moments and more than a few unexpected twists. The Handmaiden is divided into three chapters and each chapter is told through the perspective of a different character. Not merely a gimmick, this serves to gift us a key to understanding characters that, hitherto, appeared to be maddeningly inscrutable or, indeed, something else entirely. As a result, your sympathies are constantly shifting or being tested. And yet it's never done in such a way as to hoodwink for the hell of it.
The drama and revelations unfurl so naturally that even with its stately pace and long running time, it's never dull.
However, don't be fooled by The Handmaiden's air of stuffy prestige (largely due to the exquisite costuming, handsome mis en scene, and a general sense of tastefulness) because it's charged by a comedically lewd energy. To wit, the heiress Hideko and her maid Sookee are alone in a room together. They silently share a few moments, their love obviously blooming. And then the Count loudly bursts through the door and helps himself to a peach. The juices explode everywhere, indeed they appear to piss all over the delicate mood, as he exclaims "hmm, ripe!". It's a delightful obscenity. Of course as it goes on, The Handmaiden treads far more explicit territory, running the gamut from intoxicating to vile.
Like most great films, its focus is intimate and specific but its sweep is epic. Also like most great films, The Handmaiden contains all that's ghastly and lovely about this topsy-turvy world. See it while you can.