Nothing is as it seems in The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi). Park Chan-wook’s victorious return to the Korean filmmaking scene after his American debut, 2013’s Stoker, is rife with pungent physicality and nearly overwhelmingly aesthetic surfaces. We saw Park pay that same level of attention to each detail in Stoker, all those burning glances and insect closeups laid over a stifling plot. This time, he has a story that more than justifies his flagrantly overripe style.
In ’30s-era Korea, young Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) is sent to work as the handmaiden to a wealthy Japanese lady in the kind of large and isolated estate best viewed through a scrim of lashing rain and crackling lightning flashes. Adapted from Sarah Waters’ Victorian London-set novel Fingersmith, the film delights in classic Gothic tropes, from looming, secret-riddled architecture to terrified beauties with delicate bone structure.
True to this form, Sookee is a slight and easily startled creature. Once she creeps into her sleeping quarters, a glorified closet across the hall from the bedroom where her mistress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), whimpers in the throes of bad dreams, we know they’re soon to be menaced by something or someone. The most likely source of this threat is Kouzuki (Kim Min-hee), Hideko’s tyrannical and slightly mad uncle, prone to lingering suspiciously over his library of rare books and scrolls, as the camera draws our attention to his ink-blackened tongue and drug-lidded eyes.
Just when viewers might be settling in for a haunted-house story with some stylistic peculiarities, it turns out that Sookee is far from the easily frightened ingénue. In fact, she’s a pickpocket working for a charming scam artist going by the name of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who’s pitching woo to Hideko. Hideko has a great fortune coming to her, you see. The supposed “Count” doesn’t see any reason he can’t convince her to fall in love with him, using Sookee as his inside girl. Then, once they’re married, he plans to have Hideko tossed into an asylum, after which point the loot will be his.
However, things don’t turn out to be that simple. Hideko is soon revealed to be less fragile and sheltered than deeply traumatized, dealing with a dungeon full of secrets and ulterior motives. For her part, Sookee starts as a mercenary guttersnipe, revealed in flashbacks to have her own knotty history, living with the “Count” and a group of fellow crooks, scenes that feature a spark that helps alleviate the heavier mood of the scenes in Kouzuki’s creaking house of frights.
Soon, though, Sookee doesn’t seem so willing to go along with the plan. Although the “Count” is supposed to be the one seducing Hideko, the two women appear to just have eyes for each other, further twisting a story already complicated by tangled loyalties, as well as shocks of ultraviolence and bursts of swooning lovemaking. If these intricacies at first seem premised on Mamet-ian double- and triple-crosses, they shift to a more focused question, as we wonder whether Hideko and Sookee are actually in love or whether one or each is playing the other.
The subject matter of Park’s film might remind some viewers of other recent high-profile lesbian love stories, for example, 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color or last year’s Carol. Like those very different films, The Handmaiden underscores the folly of such efforts to categorize. Graphically overwrought and sensuously melodramatic, it also feels authentically romantic.