The last time Park Chan-wook came to Cannes, he won the Grand Prize — essentially, runner-up to the Palme d’Or — for “Oldboy,” a brutal and disturbing revenge thriller that still stands as one of the prime examples of the Korean director’s usual menu of stylish violence.
On Saturday, though, his new film had its first screening in Cannes — and instead of another action flick like “Oldboy,” “Joint Security Area” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” it’s … an adaptation of a novel about Victorian England?
Technically, yes, that’s what “The Handmaiden” is. (It’s called “Agassi” in Korean, though that’s just the Korean word for lady and has nothing to do with drop shots or forehand smashes.) The original novel comes from Welsh writer Sarah Waters, though Park transplanted it to 1930s Korea and Japan.
Still, the story of a pickpocket who is hired to become the maid of a rich heiress hardly seemed like the kind of project that would entice the director, who made his English-language debut three years ago with the immaculately staged but disappointing “Stoker.”
And yet the film is based on the kind of material that brings out the strengths of Park’s filmmaking — or, at least, those strengths that aren’t related to fighting and physical (as opposed to emotional) violence.
As usual, Park has taken the material to extremes — not when it comes to bloodshed or brutality, though there’s a cringe-inducing sequence of that near the end, but in sex and kinkiness. What begins as a seemingly genteel story of intrigue veers into clear NC-17 territory with some explicit sexuality, mostly of the lesbian variety that’s always been so scary to the MPAA’s ratings board.
“The Handmaiden” is gorgeous, of course, every inch of its sumptuous settings designed for maximum drama and, often, maximum beauty. And its domestic setting is deeply creepy, with the underlying currents of menace so often prevalent in Park’s work.
This is a world in which everybody has a hidden agenda, and Park doesn’t unveil all the shifting alliances and secret predilections until late in the film’s excessive running time.
“The Handmaiden” is also stylized to within an inch of its life: The actors are melodramatic, the setting is melodramatic and every swoop and pan is more melodramatic than the last.
This isn’t unusual for Park, who loves to be creepy and stagy. But over nearly two and a half hours, “The Handmaiden” grows tiresome — beautiful and occasionally startling, but tiresome nonetheless.
Still, the director is nothing if not a world-class auteur with a distinctive vision, and the Cannes audience reacted with prolonged applause.
And while his new film might not establish Park as a maestro of erotica quite the way his earlier films made made him a master of violence, it’s hard to fault the guy for going a little overboard with something new.