Divided into chapters and utilizing a broken timeline that flits before and after the introductory events, The Handmaiden wants to get a full picture of the scheme that is being hatched and the players bringing it to fruition. Scenes are shown from one perspective earlier in the film and then end when the character leaves the room, and those scenes are later revisited from the perspective of the person who stayed behind, giving new shading on events and altering what was previously known. This worked to devastating emotional effect in 2015's Carol, and it works again here on a 'eureka' level, no less effective in its cinematic punch. Park benefits from all his characters having a crafty intelligence, such that they don't fall behind because they're dumb but because other characters are smarter.
Park crafts a top-notch psychodrama, but The Handmaiden creates indelible characters to execute the various machinations. Adapted from a Sarah Waters novel into a script co-written by Park and frequent collaborator on his female-centered projects Jeong Seo-kyeong, the film casts Sook-hee and Hideki as co-leads, with Fujiwara and Kouzoki as obstacles to be dealt with. Since so much of the film deals with seduction, it's the protagonists who do much of the seducing, to each other and to much of the rest of the cast. An early scene between Sook-hee and Hideki featuring a sharp molar and a thimble goes on for a very long time, as Sook-hee files down her mistress' tooth while they gaze into each other's eyes, immediately placing the viewer in doubt of who's entrancing who. This is an internal battle with real stakes in the financial and personal freedom realms, and so much of it takes place in battles of will over who will blush or look away first.
While the bond that develops between the two protagonists is often shaky and unsure once the viewer realizes what kind of film they're watching, it's never less than apparent who the antagonist is. Fujiwara surely has nefarious goals, but it's Kouzoki who The Handmaiden is disgusted with. As more is revealed of him, he becomes a twisted fairy-tale dragon keeping a princess in a castle, pimping her out as a way to climb the social ladder and enrich himself at the same time. Hideko serves as a reader of his erotica collection, just as her aunt did before her, donning a geisha costume and getting other rich old men to adjust themselves and wipe their brows, after which Kouzoki auctions off the material. Scenes of her plying her trade for him are disgusting in a debauched, fall of Rome way, both in what she's having to go through and in what these scenes are saying about sexual dynamics and objectification. Though aged and accomplished men, the patrons at Kouzoki's library are reduced to sweaty teens gaping over porn, deprived of any dignity they might have had while Hideko retains her serene facade.
The plotting of The Handmaiden is exceptional, but Park doesn't stop there in adding superlatives to his film. Funny in a near-vaudevillian, slapstick fashion, the film never takes itself too seriously, a perfect tone that contrasts the immaculate production design. And, boy, is that production design immaculate. The costuming, especially of Hideko, is stunning even for someone without an eye for that kind of thing, and the set dressing is its equal. Park films much of the setting so lovingly, that it evokes what a lavish chair or a peephole in a wall might feel like. The sexuality of the film, while just as raw as another lesbian-featuring but male-directed film like Blue is the Warmest Color but less exploitative, has a strong thematic resonance, with the characters taking back pleasure from where once there was only pain and humiliation.
The complete package is one of complete satisfaction, a film that manages to luxuriate in its surroundings while still feeling short at 145 minutes. Park is at the peak of his powers in The Handmaiden. Some plot threads are tied off too abruptly and maybe don't line up as well as they should, but this is the kind of film that earns its benefit of the doubt with one-of-a-kind scenes like the aforementioned tooth filing. The Handmaiden finds Park at the peak of his powers, a master with his most beautiful canvas yet. A-