Cinematic magic can be at its finest in a good thriller. From start to finish these movies function more like magic shows, whirling about with pizazz and flourish. But the spell depends on that final act — what do you leave your audience home with?
Tamako (Kim Tae-ri) is left in bewilderment. From the very first time she laid eyes on Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) the woman she’s to be a handmaiden to, she’s struck by her immense beauty. Her role quickly turns from servant to gal pal, assisting Hideko as Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) attempts to woo her. Thing is, the Count is actually in cahoots with Tamako, hoping to steal Hideko’s fortune so he can “order a bottle of wine without looking at the price.”
It’s hard to say what exactly is considered a spoiler in a film like “The Handmaiden,” built entirely on allegiances and layers that open and shift like screen doors. It’s the kind of place writer-director Park Chan-Wook finds himself most comfortable. His twisty tales of the past (his vengeance trilogy, which includes “Oldboy” and “Stoker”) have always plumbed the darkness that can exist in cinema, invoking grotesqueness almost as frequently as it coils into greatness.
Nothing in “The Handmaiden” is simply drawn; allegiances, innocence, even the spectacular estate they reside in. Like the sprawling mansion where the movie occupies much of its time, it takes a sort-of Russian nesting doll approach to its tale. Chan-Wook builds on his mastery as he plays with perception and perspective in the movie; he moves the camera moves wide, gliding through the library where Hideko reads to her uncle (Cho Jin-woong) but never strays too far from the action, always conscious of where the audience wants to be looking (while still coyly asking it to look wider).
There’s always an intimacy being fostered in the film, and Chan-Wook understands that as crucial to the experience. It meets the viewer where they are, teaching you how to take it all in. His camera may swoop and sweep, but it never feels lets its characters feel distant. Like any thriller protagonist who stands on ever shifting ground, that sense of self—never vocalized but nonetheless a necessity—is imperative.
And so we follow our titular handmaiden in three acts, all equally perplexing, dreamy, and exquisitly unfolding. Though it tips into melodrama at times, emotions heightened with everything dialed up to eleven, the film’s players never dip into stock types. Neither Tae-ri nor Min-hee let their classic heist set-up feel like pure fiction. As two women fed up with their roles in society they’re fantastic. As two soul mates fed up with the patriarchy, they’re perfect.
Chan-Wook is constantly introducing themes, characters, mannerisms, then pulling them back to do something different. Its length — nearly two and a half hours — flies by as three chapters unwind and rear themselves up for the finale. The highbrow, straight-faced costume drama is balanced out with Chan-Wook’s bizarre and darkly comic sense of humor. Tamako’s Shane Black-esque narration is the initial sign that this is not your grandma’s thriller, but later quick cuts of the two women playing dress-up elegantly punctuate sinuous plotting.
As the movie takes its final bow, the magic settles into the air. It’s done the (nearly) unthinkable, weaving a complicated and compelling slight of hand. It’s light-footed and yet impossibly intricate. In the end it doesn’t matter if you see the twists coming or not. There’s so much to take from this enthralling and utterly filthy thriller that it spins magic out of thin air.
“The Handmaiden” opens Oct. 28 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.