I got off to a mediocre start with Chan-wook Park. The first movie of his I saw, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I thought was a mess made by a talented director. ("It would be not only unfair, but incorrect, to say that Park Chan-wook is a talentless hack. But no matter how many flourishes he adds, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is just another incoherent gorefest.") I've seen a lot more Korean horror movies since then, and I might think differently about that movie now. Anyway, next up was Oldboy, and color me impressed. ("While Mr. Vengeance had a plot that was at times incoherent and at times shallow, Oldboy’s narrative grabs the viewer from the start and never lets up. And the themes, of love and taboos, and the allusions, to Kafka and Memento, make Oldboy into a full experience.") Finally, there was the third film in the "Vengeance Trilogy", Lady Vengeance, which was as gorgeous to look at as the others (if you can make it through the violence, that is) and found a way to bring the plot together with a remarkable ending.
None of this prepared me for The Handmaiden. It's gorgeous, and yes, there are some violent scenes, although nothing to match Oldboy. But so much is different. It's based on a novel, Fingersmith, by Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Waters set her story in Victorian Britain ... Park moved the setting to Korea in the 1930s, when Korea was occupied by Japan. This adds depth to the film, although I admit I'm sure I missed much of it. Still, the relationship between Koreans and Japanese culture is shown clearly enough. The plot, which as far as I can tell sticks fairly closely to the novel, involves a con man trying to marry a rich woman for her money. I could say a lot more, but one of the great pleasures of The Handmaiden is following the twists and turns of the plot, so I'll just say that very little is as it seems. Even the manner in which the various twists unfold is elegant ... it's almost a spoiler to say that the twists exist, because Park takes his time getting to that part of his tale.
The film features a handful of fairly explicit sex/love scenes, and I'm of two minds about them. On the one hand, the scenes are lovely, and the actresses are quite beautiful. These are not what you might call "Game of Thrones" scenes, either, tossed in just for titillation. No, these scenes reveal both character and plot, and are, as they say, "integral" to the story. Nonetheless, more than one critic has accused Park of falling back on the male gaze to inform his work in those scenes. Park has argued that his film shows the damage the male gaze does to women, citing in particular scenes where one of the women reads books to groups of men. I'm not sure where I come down on this. They are used effectively, but I don't think Park totally escapes his desire to show hot women doing hot things with each other in a way that men would enjoy.
Still, there is much to like here, even to love. At times, it's like watching a Korean movie directed by Guillermo del Toro, and I mean that as a compliment. #399 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.