Park Chan-wook is probably best known for his Revenge Trilogy, particularly the best and strangest of them, Oldboy. His lush cinematography, twisty narratives, and dark sense of humor have made him one of South Korea's biggest directors, and for the past couple of years I've been very excited when one of his films is released in the US.
The Handmaiden was described to me as a "lesbian revenge thriller," so of course I was on board from the get go. The Handmaiden is an adaptation of the novel The Fingersmith, but Park isn't shy about taking liberties with the narrative, moving it from Victorian England to Japanese occupied Korea in the 1930s, which adds an interesting political and racial dimension to it that I admit I'm not really informed enough to catch much of.
I'll start by saying that this movie is stunning. Of course, his movies are always gorgeously shot, but the setting (a grand estate in the Korean countryside modeled after both a Japanese house and an English manor), the wardrobe (which I actually read as Edwardian until the very end, which might have been intended to signify that they were isolated and a bit behind the times), and the casting (there are a lot of beautiful people in this movie, and you see *cough* a lot of them) all come together to create something utterly sensuous and jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Sook-hee, a young Korean woman, is the new maid of a reclusive Japanese woman, Hideko, who is the ward of her eccentric uncle, a book collector. There's something very strange going on at their palatial country estate, though, and it soon becomes clear that no one is exactly what they seem to be.
I don't want to talk too much about the actual story, mostly because there are a few twists and turns that are really fun to watch play out. I read a few reviews before going in that kind of spoiled things for me (I mean, not spoiled as in "ruined," just spoiled as in "I know that this happens and will be unsurprised by it"), so I'll avoid doing the same to you. Suffice it to say that despite the two and a half hour run time, there wasn't a moment where I was bored or even really aware of time passing.
It's surprisingly funny in the way that Park's movies often are - sight gags and smash cuts and wonderful little character moments, particularly from the naive Sook-hee, that had the entire theater laughing out loud. It's also really sexy, and I don't recommend watching it with, you know, your grandmother. I'm not a prudish person, but there were a couple of moments that made me blush to watch in a crowded movie theater. It's not a frightening movie (although there is a bit of gore towards the end), but there's a lot of tension watching the story play out, and wondering where everything is leading.
I can't recommend this movie highly enough. I haven't seen too many movies this year, but this one is by far my favorite. Keep an eye on your local indie movie houses, because this one is definitely worth going out of your way to see.