The Handmaiden contains multitudes: It’s a sumptuous romantic period piece, as well as a sexy spy thriller, replete with secret identities and triple-crosses. It’s an extended commentary on Japan’s occupation of Korea in the 1930s, and it’s an intense piece of psychological horror from one of the masters of the genre, Park Chan-wook. But more than anything, The Handmaiden is just pure cinema, a dizzying, disturbing fable of love and betrayal that piles on luxurious imagery, while never losing track of its story’s human core. For Park, the Korean director of crossover genre hits like Old Boy and Thirst, the movie feels like an evolutionary leap forward in an already brilliant career.
The film is, surprisingly enough, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, a Victorian crime novel about a petty thief who gets entangled in a long con against a noblewoman, with whom she then falls in love (after that, many further twists ensue). Park and his co-writer Chung Seo-kyung have taken Waters’s investigation of Victorian repression and its limits on female empowerment, and translated it into a tale that delves into the dynamics of Korean culture during Japan’s pre-war occupation. This is a movie about the costumes people wear, both literal and psychological, and that focus extends outward to its setting, a peculiar mansion that mashes up Japanese and Victorian architecture. Park’s film is one where every gesture or period detail is loaded with double meaning, and where his heroines have to wrap their feelings in layers of deception just to try and survive.