The Handmaiden Movie Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Released by Magnolia Pictures
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Written by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung
2016, 145 minutes, Rated NR
Min-hee Kim as Lady Hideko
Tae-ri Kim as Sook-Hee
Jung-wo Ha as Count Fujiwara
Jing-woon Jo as Uncle Kouzuki
When the name Park Chan-wook comes up, most film lovers will immediately think about a trio of movies that have come to be known as The Vengeance Trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. These three films are perfect examples of the director’s work in that all are forceful, impeccably shot/framed, have instances of black humor, and the themes they deal with are intense. The Handmaiden, Chan-wook’s latest offering, does not stray from that successful equation, but it stands as a unique, well-written film that reminds viewers why he is one of the most acclaimed Korean filmmakers.
In Japan-occupied Korea, a man who has spent his life perfecting his skills as a con artist and dreaming of money comes up with a plan that can set him up for life. To accomplish it, he assumes a new identity, that of Count Fujiwara. Then he employs a young, eager pickpocket named Sook-Hee, who comes from a family of con artists. She will become the maid of Lady Hideko, a mysterious heiress whom Fujiwara plans to seduce and marry before having her committed to an asylum in order to inherit her fortune. Sook-Hee renames herself Tamako and moves into Hideko's household with a letter of recommendation from Fujiwara. The house is controlled by her uncle, Kouzuki, a strange man who collects antique erotica and forces Hideko to perform readings of his books in a special room before they are auctioned off to the rich men who come to the readings. This is where things get complicated. Sok-Hee is on a mission, but she starts developing feelings for Hideko, who, unbeknownst to Sook-Hee, has plans of her own with Fujiwara. The two women begin to experiment sexually with each other, and their feelings start affecting the way they see their secret agendas. What follows is a visually striking narrative that explores loyalty, self-interest, and the complicated ways in which lies must be constructed in order to work.
Because it is divided into two parts and shifts between past and present, The Handmaiden feels like two stories that deserved their own movie but were instead woven into a single film. Chan-wook is masterful visual storyteller in that he understands the profound relationship between words and images, and he lets the camerawork, framing, colors, and movement convey as much of the story as the dialogue. These elements get a lot of help from a solid cast, whose actors delivers great performances and a score that adds to the elegance of the places shown in the film.
The Handmaiden is one of those rare movies that effectively use plot twists more than once. Whether they are predictable or not is debatable, but they are undeniably enjoyable. Also, there is enough eroticism throughout the film to make it as important as a character. From the homosexual relations between Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko to the erotic readings Hideko gives in front of rich men, desire, sex, and sexual tension are present in almost every subplot of the film and act as driving motor in plenty of scenes.
Perhaps the only shortcoming of this movie is length. Clocking in at 144 minutes, there are a few instances in which lingering takes and panning shots feel self-indulgent. With a few cuts, the same story could have been told in just under two hours. That being said, Chan-wook makes every second of the film a festival of color and beauty. For example, the room in which the readings take place is shown in various incarnations (things move around and the room completely changes in order to serve different purposes a few times during the film), and the overhead shots are spectacular. So are almost all the shots from outside of Lady Hideko’s residence. Last but not least, there is a gory scene near the end of the film (giving more details would be a mistake here) that features a giant octopus and genitalia in jars that makes everything that preceded it a worthy investment.
The Handmaiden is a rare hybrid best described as an erotic psychological thriller with touches of crime. The surprising thing about it is that it delivers on every promise that categorization makes: there is mystery, hidden agendas, tension, explosions of violence, sex scenes, and a few daring escapes. While visually stunning, the film never moves to far from what lies at its core: an exploration of desire, imprisonment, vulnerability, and dishonesty in the name of self-interest and love.