By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, October 27, in San Francisco at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission and the Landmark Embarcadero.
The best film of the year so far. Anyone who has followed me over the years knows my love-hate relationship with the act of taking notes during a film (my chief concern: it interferes with the act of eating Skittles during a film). It’s valuable when writing a long review, and while it can also be a distraction, I generally find that my attention is more forensic and less reactive when I take notes. I run hot and cold with note-taking, and I’m in the middle of a cold spell right now, which is all an excuse to say that I feel completely unprepared to discuss Oldboy director Chan-wook Park’s spellbinding The Handmaiden without pages and pages of richly annotated notes at my disposal. But then I don’t know that any amount of notes could prepare me to wrap my arms around this bottomless well of a movie after a single screening. After all, I probably couldn’t explain the cosmos after spending a single night under the stars.
Min-hee Kim plays Lady Hideko, a shrinking violet heiress kept by her creepy collector uncle, while Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-Hee, Lady Hideko’s gawky new handmaiden. We quickly learn that Sook-Hee is secretly a con artist working in concert with a sleazy gigolo, helping to push the virginal Lady Hideko into a quickie marriage before shipping her off to the nuthouse. But that’s only the opening movement in a symphony of visual seduction, character misdirection and narrative double-backs, as Park weaves ideas about sexuality, performance, perversion and storytelling into something deeply, wonderfully strange and erotic.
Oh, and the aesthetics are impeccable, the performances are luminescent, the characters are rich and complex, and if that’s not enough, the film is weirdly funny in a way that few others besides Park could pull off. The Handmaiden was adapted by Park and Seo-Kyung Chung from Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, moved from Victorian England to Korea in the 1930s, and as with Oldboy it takes place in a real world heightened to the point of surrealism and madness. It would be a shame to spoil any of the silky curves of the story, or reveal any of the bizarre obsessions and talismans at the heart of the tale, but sufficed to say that silver bells aren’t just for Christmas time in the city anymore. I haven’t been so mystified and tantalized by a film, so curious to understand the spell it cast over me, since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.