1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, a new girl (Sookee) is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress (Hideko) who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her domineering Uncle (Kouzuki). But the maid has a secret. She is a pickpocket recruited by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count to help him seduce the Lady to elope with him, rob her of her fortune, and lock her up in a madhouse. The plan seems to proceed according to plan until Sookee and Hideko discover some unexpected emotions.
All the best things about Asian cinema, rolled into one.
Clever, heady and sensually lavish to a fault.
Starts out looking as if it ll be a deeply serious (and seriously depressing) tale of a Korean "comfort woman" forced to service the occupying Japanese military. After about five minutes of grandiose solemnity, Park drops the charade.
The Handmaiden is sexy and twisty and so compelling despite this, lodging itself in the points of view of two women who are constantly underestimated by the men around them, and who learn to take advantage of how they re misjudged.
Female leads Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri are both standouts, conveying the complexity of the film s multi-layered con games with subtle changes of facial expression and tone of voice.
The secret of the film, I suspect, is its love of secrets. The men and women guard their stratagems like jewels, and their lusts like hidden fires.
Elegant, intensely romantic... The visual equivalent of drinking three glasses of champagne in the bath.
Sure, Park might be at Peak Male Gaze here, but he s also telling a dazzling, darkly comic story about two women fed up with the patriarchy.
Director Park Chan-wook has always had a stunningly cinematic eye, but he s better known for gouging someone else s out. In The Handmaiden, he demonstrates a lightness and humor unseen in his previous work.
Park seizes on the story s potent combination of larceny and taboo sexuality, and his steamy love scenes are enhanced by Seong-hie Ryu s sumptuous set decor.