We gave it an A-
There’s a saying often credited to pulp writer Jim Thompson that there is only one plot: “Things are not as they seem.” In the case of The Handmaiden, the maxim applies equally to the story and the filmmaking. Seamlessly transplanting Sarah Waters’ Dickensian caper Fingersmith to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, the film begins as the tale of Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), a street thief embedded as the maid to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a wealthy heiress. The position is arranged in order to lay the groundwork for Sookee’s scheming associate, Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who aims to marry Hideko and steal her inheritance — before sending her off to the madhouse. Further complicating matters are Sookee’s growing feelings for Hideko.
But that’s only part of the story. The rest is so suspenseful, sexy, and surprising that it would be a shame to say any more. Director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) has always had a stunningly cinematic eye, but he’s better known for gouging someone else’s out. In The Handmaiden, he demonstrates a lightness and humor unseen in his previous work. Sookee and Hideko’s relationship — explicit as it may be — is not about exploitation or shock value, but instead the joy and intimacy of new love. And sure, someone gets his fingers slowly chopped off, but that’s, like, one scene. A-