I’m typically not a huge fan of twisty shenanigans in my movie plots, but director Park Chan-wook’s latest is a testament to the virtues of The Major Plot Twist as a storytelling device. The Handmaiden is a deliberately twisty crime story in which the audience is continually conned into believing half-truths depending on the minute-to-minute revelations of its various narrators, anxiously awaiting the next rug pull to knock us on our ass. As a lesbian erotic thriller with meticulous dedication to craft & a Tarantino-esque celebration of crime & revenge narratives, the film plays like an unholy combination of the flashier aspects of Bound & The Duke of Burgundy, if you could believe such a thing was possible. It’s a gleefully tawdry art piece that takes great delight in its own narrative cleverness, but also constructs a strong enough visual foundation for its flashy storytelling style to shine instead of annoy. If The Handmaiden were a little uglier or if its bigger reveals were held until its final moments, its tonal balancing act might have crumbled disastrously. As is, it’s too fun & too beautiful to resist.
A petty criminal brings in an even pettier cohort for a conspiracy plot to gaslight a young heiress & rob her of her dowry once she’s declared insane. The young, naïve forger finds it increasingly difficult to live a lie as the heiress’s dutiful handmaiden as she finds herself falling unexpectedly in love with her would-be victim. The love is quickly revealed to be mutual and the film deals in largely the same unspoken, but physically expressed homosexual desire as Carol . . . until it culminates in an explicit, laugh-heavy sex scene (or three). Once their mutual desire is solidified & consummated the question is how much further the handmaiden is willing to deceive & exploit her lady. That is, until Park starts to have fun in deceiving & exploiting his own audience. There’s a near-endless sea of complex relationships, past abuses, planned double-crossings, and unthinkable depths of greed that Park plays close to the chest until he can use them to prank & subvert audience expectation. It isn’t a storytelling style I usually care for, considering how much attention it calls to its own cleverness, but The Handmaiden is so lovingly constructed & visually detailed that my personal apprehension with its tone means nothing. It also helps that the film often plays like a comedy, one where the humor lands consistently & sometimes even tenderly.
The Handmaiden is above all else a film about forgery. Its characters forge expensive books & jewelry, along with entire identities. The central conman forges a life where he can pose as nobility despite his empty bank account & lowly beginnings. The lady’s uncle/Master forges himself a new national identity, forsaking his Korean heritage for a false air of Japanese superiority, complete with a vast collection of his adopted country’s erotica & a particular obsession with the infamous octopus sex print The Tale of the Fisherman’s Wife. Most importantly, though, the film tackles the idea of forged desire. It pits the real-life sexual attraction between the lady & her handmaiden against the forgeries of the predatory masculine seduction forced by the conman & the hideously cruel uncle, making almost a divine object out of the genuine thing. In his own way, Park himself also deals in a kind of forgery – intentionally selling the audience a fake version of his own story before slowly revealing the genuine version of the real thing. He was smart to marry that storytelling deceit with the consistent theme of deceit in the film’s content; it works both as an acknowledgement & as a mission statement.
A lot of the fun of The Handmaiden is in trying to get a firm hand on the film’s tone. Depending on what moment you’re watching, it can play as a myriad of different genres: a farce, a revenge thriller, a ghost story, intense erotica, literal gallows humor, etc. Park Chan-wook is playful & adventurous in the way he navigates these moods, but he anchors the film to a solid foundation of highly specific, meticulously crafted imagery. A cherry blossom tree, an octopus, a coiled rope, an ink-stained tongue; The Handmaiden is first & foremost an achievement in intense costume & sent design, which allows for plenty of room in its narrative sprawl for twist-heavy shenanigans. I don’t think it’s quite the exquisite art piece of the similarly twisty & playfully erotic The Duke of Burgundy, but the film also gives no implication that it’s aiming for that work’s quiet emotional impact. It mostly aims to have fun with its narrative & its audience and by that measurement it’s a major success.