A complex, erotic, web of conspiracies, treacheries, deceptions, psychological thrills, and vengeance.
From director Park Chan-Wook, probably best known for the disturbing masterpiece Oldboy (the original, not the American remake with Josh Brolin that I’ve never gotten around to seeing), comes a Korean adaptation of the 2002 novel, Fingersmith. It doesn’t matter if you’ve not heard of the book, if you are familiar at all with Park’s films you know what to expect as it fits perfectly within his particular sensibilities. You don’t watch one of his movies if you are easily disturbed or bothered by the dark tendrils of disturbing extremes. Forget traditional horror films, his films consist of real nightmares. Beautiful, disturbing, nightmares that claw at your psyche.
While I have limited exposure to his filmography, I can tell you that The Handmaiden is more straightforward in some ways, and less violent than Oldboy, and much of it is actually rather upbeat and happy, in its own weird way.
An experienced young thief is hired by a master con-artist to work as the handmaiden of a secluded heiress in order to convince her to marry him so that he might steal her away from her perverted uncle in order to claim her riches before abandoning her in an insane asylum. Things go awry, however, when the handmaiden falls for the heiress, despite her intentions. Even then, things may not be as they seem. No, the plan and plot don’t seem any less complicated when you see them in action.
After you manage to get a hold on the plot, with its fairly complex setup, it quickly gets a hold of you, dragging you through dark, excitingly sultry, and deviously dangerous, hallways. What this film does masterfully is not let you realize just how disturbing it is until it is too late. Things unfold that make you completely reevaluate what you’ve already seen and thought. Park is meticulous in creating this centerpiece that unfolds like a complex origami sculpture that holds a great many secrets perhaps better left unopened.
Despite the complications, the story moves forward in an obvious direction, as two young women, naive in different ways, discover themselves and one another, sinking into an ill advised fantasy. It borders on predictable and cliche as it becomes apparently predictable just what is going on and what is going to happen. And then it all changes. In one swift moment, what you think is reality is snapped in two, shattering expectations. And as soon as you’ve come to grips with that fact and begin to piece together what is really going on, there it goes again, changing directions yet again. Looking backwards, it seems the actual reality could have been obvious, or at least it feels like it should have been, but as the story plays with expectations like a cat might bat around a pair of silver bells, you’re intrigued and a bit confused. And rightly so.
Revenge is a common theme of Park’s and this film celebrates that style of cinematic vengeance that draws applause from an audience who has been tense with the need to do something while being helpless to affect the film themselves. After spending most of the time mesmerized and uncomfortable, the ending will not disappoint.
Intense, sexually graphic, disturbing, haunting, and satisfying, don’t enter this one unless you’re prepared.
Mrs. Hamster did not screen this film
Brother Hamster did not screen this film
My rating: Four out of five hats
The Handmaiden is in limited release and squirms into the DC area October 28