The Handmaiden (2016) Review


Director(s): Park Chan-wook
Park Chan-wook, Chung Seo-Kyung
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Kim Tae-ri, Cho Jin-woong

Plot: After sending Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) into the Kouzuki estate as the handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the plans of conman “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo) to swindle the wealthy heiress’ fortune is complicated when the latter falls in love with her handmaiden.

Review: A masterstroke of filmmaking from the mind behind The Vengeance Trilogy (2002-2005), Thirst (2009), and Stoker (2013), The Handmaiden is undeniably Park Chan-wook’s best film yet, more than even Oldboy (2003), a film now etched in the annals of Internet circlejerk history. Adapted from Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith“, and boasting the strengths of his previous films – The Vengeance Trilogy’s violence, Thirst’s sensuality –, with none of the flaws – Stoker’s predictability and pacing –, Chan-wook delivers a nuanced South Korean period film set in the early 20th century, seamlessly incorporating the time period the film is set within into the storytelling.

For those familiar with the distances Chan-wook often goes when it comes to his films, especially with acts of sexuality – depraved or otherwise –, bloodcurdling violence, sharp lefts the narratives often take, the notion of ‘love’, and how the writer-director continuously pushes the envelope with films, The Handmaiden will nonetheless still surprise, shock, and amaze those that sit through the film its entirety. As the subject the film tackles is that of romance between two women of different ages, and with an auteur such as Chan-wook at its helm, The Handmaiden is the definition of arthouse erotica, as the film has a sex sequence that rivals that of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013).

The impeccable production value and art design bleeding into The Handmaiden, the film is a cinematic wonder to behold. Its two-and-a-half hours of running time fleets by without dragging, each shot transfixing the viewer with the crisp color palette and surgical framing, from the brief set piece of a rural Korean home to the posh architecture and interior décor of Japan and England that the film primarily takes place in. If the film isn’t busy being beautiful, the direction and performance of the cast takes over, as Chan-wook naturally brings out the best in everyone, particularly his two female leads, Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri, and Ha Jung-woo, the male outlier.

Dialing back the violence compared to his previous films, Chan-wook ratchets up the sensuality to an impossibly high degree instead, building from steady, nearly inaudible moans of the youngest character, to a full-fledged sexual encounter, as the only thing truly differentiating the aforementioned sex scene from softcore pornography being the fact that it is an essential cog in the feature length film machinery. An erotic thriller set during Korea’s colonial occupation by Japan, and centered around men attempting to rob a wealthy woman of her fortune, The Handmaiden deftly challenges filmmaking norms – as these kinds of films usually do – and proves to ultimately be a celebration of womanhood against an era of patriarchy and aristocracy.

Rating: S!