Our heroine, initially at least, is Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri), the new handmaiden of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a rich heiress in Japan-occupied Korea. But not two scenes in, we discover what she’s really up to: she’s a con artist, planted by her partner (Ha Jung-woo), who will himself penetrate the household as the worldly “Count Fujiwara.” His plan involves stealing her away from the uncle (Cho Jin-woong) who’s been living off her (and hopes to marry her), cashing in her riches, and then driving her into the insane asylum; he needs someone with her ear to grease all of those wheels, and that’s where Sook-Hee comes in. And then…
Well, we should cut this short. Suffice it to say this is a story told in three parts, and one of its most exquisite pleasures is how Chan-wook’s script keeps doubling back on itself, revealing more information and then revisiting earlier scenes whose text and subtext are recast by what we now know. And all of that is complicated by the unexpected and intense sexual attraction between Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko, which first reveals itself in a scene of bathtub grooming that’s inexplicit but indubitably hot – no skin is revealed, but the way their breathing overtakes the soundtrack and their close-ups fill the frame, and there’s no question this attraction isn’t stopping there.
And it’s unquestionably his most erotic feature to date, downright sumptuous, with the escalating exchanges between the title character and her “Miss” drawing their electricity from the power dynamic at play between them. Chan-wook is working from some of the same kinks as The Duke of Burgandy, and the consummation, when it comes, has the acrobatic intensity of Blue is the Warmest Color (and, well, some of the male gaziness as well; I know how silly it sounds to sniff at gratuitous sex scenes, but the final interaction at the picture’s tail end is comical in its one-for-the-road obviousness). Their initial physical contact is carefully masked in rehearsals and avatars – with phrases like “keep doing this like the Count would” – but they’re not fooling anyone, least of all themselves.
So it’s very much a film intoxicated with words, with the power of language to not only arouse, but to provoke and to obscure. So we don’t just revisit earlier scenes to revel in the deceptions, but in the way language is deployed in their service. The plot turns are blindsiding, but the manner in which Chan-wook shifts gears, sometimes from scene to scene, sometimes from shot to shot, from the fiendishly clever to the sumptuously sexual to the darkly grisly, is its crowning achievement. He’s in such supreme command of his craft that to watch The Handmaiden is to watch a man drunk on the joy of moviemaking – and to share the same buzz.
The Handmaiden is out Friday in limited release.