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Pulp Fiction

Park Chan-wook's ravishing new film, The Handmaiden, is a beguiling meditation on the truth
Ha Jung-Woo and Kim Min-Hee in The Handmaiden
Ha Jung-Woo and Kim Min-Hee in The Handmaiden

Some people say there are two sides to every story. Others say three. I wonder how many Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst) would argue for. Park’s latest film, the stunning The Handmaiden, is a glorious exploration of the truth, or a truth: People are made up of the stories they tell, and those stories are rarely entirely reliable.

But that’s only one piece of The Handmaiden, which unfolds languidly and beguilingly over two and a half hours — hours that go by too quickly. From the start, things are not entirely what they seem. A young Korean woman hands over a baby, matter-of-factly, and walks off into a downpour as another woman shrieks with envy. The woman in the rain, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), is on her way to work as a handmaiden in the house of a very wealthy Japanese book collector, serving his niece, the heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). 

Except that she’s not. Except that she is. It isn’t long before Sook-hee — called Tamako by her new employers — reveals herself in voice-over: She’s a thief working with an imposter Count, Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), in a plot to steal Hideko (and her money) away from her uncle.

The Handmaiden’s plot is a little bit pulpy, a little bit Gothic, and more than a little suggestive of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (is it the stunning but cold house, or the stern housekeeper?). What happens may be less important than how it happens, and less important than whose perspective you’re seeing a moment from: Cold Fujiwara? The impressive actress Sook-hee, mousy one moment, full of rage the next? Or Hikedo herself, raised alone in this sprawling house, haunted by the memory of her dead aunt and strictly controlled by her uncle?

Park’s film is based on Sarah Waters’ Victorian crime novel Fingersmith, but he’s transported the story to Japanese-occupied Korea, where colonial tensions simmer in the background. Much of the historical context is likely lost on Western audiences, but Park creates a feeling of imbalance, of juxtaposition, of misperception. Even the weather seems unreliable. Doors and windows are everywhere; every character is on her toes, trying not to give too much away. 

I also don’t want to give too much away. The Handmaiden can’t be ruined by spoilers; there’s no single twist to ruin, no gimmick that, once revealed, undoes the entire magic trick. Its love story comes gently into focus as two people explore each other, physically and emotionally; its sense of righteousness, of injustice and feminist rage, drives its plot to a satisfying conclusion.

Park’s ever-shifting tone — from dark humor to cruelty to playful, tender love scenes — underscores the uncertainty with which his women live, scrambling under the whims of men who only want them for certain things. Lush, perfectly scored and surprisingly romantic, The Handmaiden is a ravishing genre-bender, and a peculiar, unmatched delight. (Broadway Metro