Depravity. Sweet, sweet depravity.
Anyone who's ever watched a movie from Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, one of the great auteurs of modern cinema, will know that the one common thread found in each of his works is bad behavior — typically, male bad behavior. His latest voyeuristic exploration of man's dark side is The Handmaiden, a sort-of revenge thriller set in 1930s Japan, which takes that theme and gives it a gleeful twist, allowing us to observe the bad behavior of men through the lens of two women caught up in an experimental lesbian relationship.
Before I say anything more, check out the new international trailer for The Handmaiden, and prepare to mine the deepest, darkest crevices of the director's deliciously disturbed mind.
What The F**k Is The Handmaiden About?
That's probably the first question you'll have after sitting through the sensory delirium of the above trailer — a reasonable question, but not one easily answered. Based on Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, but relocating the story from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, The Handmaiden is essentially the story of a pickpocket, Sookee, who takes a job working as a handmaiden for a young Japanese woman due to come into a large fortune.
The heiress, Hideko, is homebound and lives with her perverted uncle. When Sookee enters the equation, the two women discover an easy chemistry, although the audience knows, almost from the word go, that the former pickpocket isn't really there to commit to a new career as a maid.
Revealed in the opening scenes, Sookee's true purpose in the household — to help an intelligent conman known as the Count to gain Hideko's hand in marriage, not to mention that vast fortune coming her way — is not so much a spoiler as the first of several twists, and if you see many or indeed any of them coming, you might want to seek help.
How Weird Does It Get?
Park Chan-wook is no stranger to making movies which keep the viewer and his protagonists in the dark (cast your mind back to Oldboy, which comes armed with one of the greatest and most horrific narrative twists you will ever encounter). Here, he uses a three-act structure to tell the story from three alternating perspectives — not so much a gimmick as cause to make us question what we thought we already knew about the quartet of players in this twisted game, asking time and again who's really playing who.
Even the house itself is a character, just as it was in the director's first and thus-far only English-language movie, the wonderfully creepy Stoker: The opulence of Hideko's home serves as a cruel and constant reminder that, although born into money, she'll have to contend with the greed of men if she ever wants to get her hands on it. It wouldn't be a con if one of the conmen didn't fall for his — or, more accurately, her — prey and, sure enough, the sexual relationship between heiress and handmaiden goes to some seriously intense places, throwing the Count's scheme into jeopardy.
Many male viewers will particularly enjoy one bird's-eye shot of Hideko and Sookee engaged in a 69, but there's little room for doubt that the two women are enjoying it a whole lot more — and while some feminists won't like the idea of a straight male directing a lesbian story, those prejudices are misguided: Chan-wook is firmly on the team of his two smart heroines. An erotic book collection, a snake, an octopus, and demonstrations of S&M with a wooden mannequin collide to help the story reach climax.
Do I Need To See This Movie?
If you're a fan of the director, it's essential that you do; ditto if you consider Oldboy one of the greatest films of the 21st century. And if you just want to get lost in a visually breathtaking, wildly unguessable story laden with plot twists which delights in perversion, The Handmaiden is everything you've been waiting for. But if your cinematic tastes begin and end with the vanilla, you'll do better sticking with Fifty Shades of Grey.
The Handmaiden hits theaters October 14 in the US, with France to follow on November 2 and most other territories still awaiting a release date — plenty of time to take a dip-dive into Chan-wook's beautifully depraved body of work.