It may seem like an odd collaboration: bad-boy Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park, famed for the violent male revenge melodrama Oldboy, and British author Sarah Waters, whose erotic thrillers are set in the Dickensian underworld of Victorian London.
But it turns out to be a surprisingly happy match-up in The Handmaiden, Park's Asian riff on Waters' novel Fingersmith. Filmmaker and source material are both edgy in complementary ways.
Gorgeously shot and composed, audacious, and full of witty visual asides, The Handmaiden is a sly entertainment of sex, larceny, deception, double-crosses, and female liberation.
Park shifts the locale to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Sook-Hee (bright and lively Kim Tae-ri) is a young woman who's grown up in a den of pickpockets and thieves, purchased from a "purveyor of stolen girls." One of the gang leaders, a smooth-talking Korean who calls himself Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), picks Sook-Hee as his accomplice in an elaborate swindle.
|Maid to Order: Kim Tae-ri and Min-hee Kim|
The mark is Kouzuki (Jin-woo Jo), a wealthy, middle-aged Japanese man living in splendor at a remote country estate. Kouzuki has been the guardian of his niece, Hideko — and her fortune — since she was five years old.
Now that Hideko (Min-hee Kim) is a poised young woman, the Count, a talented art forger, has secured himself a position as her drawing tutor. He's also arranged employment for Sook-Hee as Lady Hideko's handmaiden.
The plan is for Sook-Hee to assist the Count in persuading Hideko to run away with him. Once married, he'll shut her up in a madhouse and claim her fortune for himself.
|Drawing conclusions:Jung-woo Ha and Min-hee Kim|
Hoping to make her own fortune from her share of the take, Sook-Hee agrees. Street-smart, but not especially sophisticated (she can't read), she's awed by Kouzuki's grand home, his immense library of rare books that she's forbidden to enter, and the beauty of her new mistress — who's surprisingly close to her own age.
But this is just the jumping-off point for a plot that becomes more bold, twisty, and rewarding as it unfolds. (Park's film could be a subversive co-bill with Miss Hokusai: both deal with ukiyo-e erotica, including the famed print of a giant octopus pleasuring a swoony geisha, an image Park also references in one funny, fleeting visual gag.)
You might want to skip this one if onscreen sex makes you uncomfortable. But otherwise, this is a lavish, intricate puzzle-box of a movie that considers colonial, and gender politics with wicked aplomb. (Read more in this week's Good Times.)