The Bye Bye Man
The Bye Bye Man is the kind of film that is so boring and bereft of anything of possible interest that it becomes infuriating.
Park Chan-Wook’s “The Handmaiden” is a love story, revenge thriller and puzzle film set in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. It is voluptuously beautiful, frankly sexual, occasionally perverse and horrifically violent. At times its very existence feels inexplicable. And yet all of its disparate pieces are assembled with such care, and the characters written and acted with such psychological acuity, that you rarely feel as if the writer-director is rubbing the audience’s nose in excess of one kind or another. This is a film made by an artist at the peak of his powers: Park, a South Korean director who started out as a critic, has many great or near-great genre films, including “Oldboy,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Lady Vengeance” and “Thirst,” but this one is so intricate yet light-footed that it feels like the summation of his career to date.
It’s also as inspiring an example of East-West cross-pollination as cinema has given us, on par with Akira Kurosawa’s adaptations of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Dashiell Hammett in its ability to submerge a respected source while keeping its outlines visible. The plot faintly evokes many Gothic thrillers (chiefly "Rebecca," "Jane Eyre" and "Gaslight") and quite a few examples of film noir as well; Park’s source is Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, a 2002 novel set in Dickensian England that was previously made as a 2005 British miniseries. The result seems at once specifically English, specifically Korean and not of this astral plane; like Park’s best work, it’s an expressionistic, at times surreal movie that skates along the knife-edge of dreams. Every frame pulses with life, sometimes with blood.
The script tells of a spirited female pickpocket named Sooki, actually named Tamako ( Kim Tae-ri), who gets a job as a handmaiden at the estate of a rich old book collector (Lee Yong-nyeo), serving him and Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the niece of his late wife; she gets pulled into a scheme by a fake count who wants to marry the niece and have her committed to an asylum so that he can claim her fortune; the book collector, the fake count’s mentor, has more or less the same plan in mind. “Frankly, I’m not that interested in money itself,” says the fake count, who was raised by a Korean fisherman but claims to be Japanese and calls himself Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). “What I desire is—how shall I put it?—the manner of ordering wine without looking at the price.”
The plan is fiendishly complicated, but it grows thornier still when Sooki/Tamako starts falling in love with her target. Their blossoming affair is tenderly observed—a startlingly blunt sex scene is delayed until fairly deep into the film, and preceded by many scenes that pivot upon subtle glances, overheard remarks, and moments where one woman rushes to the other’s defense. The fake count is handsome and can be dashing at times—Ha looks so at home in a tuxedo that you could imagine him wearing it to a supermarket—but he’s also pig who seems to revel in his piggishness, and his intended target sees through him immediately. When he calls her “mesmerizing” over a tense dinner, she replies, “Men use the word ‘mesmerizing’ when they wish to touch a lady’s breasts.” He’s upfront about his utter cyncism and lack of affection for Lady Hideko, a crushed flower of a woman who was raised from girlhood as a virtual prisoner by the book collector after—well, let’s just call it a tragedy, because now we’re at the point in this review where describing any specific moment or scene from “The Handmaiden” in detail would rob readers of one of the great pleasures of watching a densely plotted, elegantly executed motion picture: having no idea of what’s about to happen next, yet nearly always being surprised and enthralled by both the twist itself and the film’s presentation of it.