Oil lamps, shadows, saliva flecked incisors, muscle constricting rage. These things line the toolbox of Park Chan-wook’s spiritually exhausting, sometimes hypnotic, “The Handmaiden.” Like much of the auteur’s past works, we see manipulation and moribund morality. Only here the journey is the size of a David Lean epic, overwrought with misery, despair, dour expressions, and self-important wave breaks. The South Korean director is three years removed from “Stoker,” his frosty, emotionally detached English language debut. In that particular film he conducted his orchestra with an icy baton. There were few of his stylistically macabre fingerprints on the Mia Wasikowska vehicle. Still, it was, without a doubt, the best directed film about nothing from 2013.
With “The Handmaiden,” Park uses watercolors instead of oil to paint an elaborate scene between three self-involved parties. The straightforward violence of his Vengeance Trilogy is long set upon the shelf, and instead of jutting blood and overt hostility, the director uses manipulative undercurrents as his choice of elocution. The result is a discussion of class, carnality, social influence, and dread. Because the film is set during the time of Imperial Japanese rule over Korea, there is also acrimonious cultural repression throughout. When olive branches are extended, they are quickly submerged in flames. The story itself seems simple enough: two enterprising thieves plan to burrow into the psyche of an affluent heiress in order to ascertain her riches. Of course, there are snags in the fabric. Pieces of the game board are swept to the floor. And long cons become mulch for the roots of an entirely different growth.
Park’s film is often times achingly beautiful, well-shot, and crafted with purpose. But it’s also self-obsessed with its own stark, unrelenting, seriousness. “The Handmaiden” directs your attention, at every point, to the shining pendulum above its characters heads – almost screaming for you to acknowledge its dangerous account of deception and peril. Here is a ambitious, rarely placid, sonnet with teeth. Is it pleasant? No. Is it affecting? Deeply. The trick is figuring out what your threshold for pain is, and weighing that against your appreciation for art. Not an easy task.