Based on Sarah Waters' book Fingersmith, Park Chan-wook's 2016 feature film The Handmaiden takes place in the Korea of the 1930s. The film begins with Korea under occupation by the Japanese. Here a small time swindler named Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) and his beautiful partner, a pickpocket named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) head to the remote estate home of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who resides in the mansion with her Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong). Sook-Hee is to begin employment under Hideko's watch as the Lady's new handmaiden, while Fujiwara will pass himself off to the Lady as a sophisticated and well to do patron of the arts. Their plan is for Fujiawara to quickly woo Hideko, marry her and then usurp control of her vast wealth, paying Sook-hee handsomely for her part in all of this, leaving her free to go off and live the rest of her life as she chooses.
Their plan goes smoothly, at least to start. Once Sook-hee develops a romantic attraction to her would be employer, however, things get more than just a little bit complicated.
That plot synopsis really only covers the first third of the movie, discussing much more than that would be unfair to anyone who hasn't seen the film (this is a movie you want to go into blind if possible!). Let it suffice to say that Park's film is a delicious mix of intrigue, suspense, drama and fairly kinky sex shot with an eye for picture perfect composition and set to a score that really couldn't be any more appropriate. The lush set design and beautiful costuming feels like something out of one of Victonti's more opulent pictures, but it's delivered here with an almost fetishistic gothic slant. The picture heads into some decidedly dark territory more than a few times, but it does so with such artistically rousing vigor that you can't help but get swept up in it all.
At a hundred and forty-four minutes in length, the picture is an investment (reportedly an even longer cut exists and is being released in the UK by Artificial Eye in the UK, it's a shame that none of the extended footage has been included on Sony's domestic offering), but it never feels plodding or padded. Park and his crew are savvy enough to hold the length of certain shots just long enough to keep us engaged, only cutting away at the right time, never spoiling the mood or the tone at the expense of quicker pacing. As such, attentive viewers will get more out of this than those looking for fast, cheap thrills. It's not that kind of movie.
The story starts off as a twisted drama but it gets ridiculously suspenseful in its latter half. The film is smart enough to ensure that the relationships that are the backbone of the film are sufficiently fleshed out before shifting gears on us. This makes what happens later in the picture resonate all the more, and it makes the movie a much more rewarding experience. The tone shifts in turn with the plot, with the film effortlessly moving from playful to sexy to dramatic to dark and back again without ever pulling us out of the world that these characters inhabit.
As fantastic as the direction and production values are in The Handmaiden, the acting is also obviously a huge factor in the film's success. There are a lot of talented supporting players here that fill in the small but important population of the home, but it's the leads that really impress. Jo Jin-woong is excellent as Hideko's domineering uncle, a man who wants what he wants when he wants it. His character might at first seem like a bit of a cliché but he's important to the story and he the actor makes the role his own. Ha Jung-woo is perfect as the conniving male lead. He's clearly capable of being as charming as he is handsome and sly. The way in which his character initially manipulates Hideko is fascinating to watch. Kim Tae-ri is amazing as one of the female leads. Watching her transform Sook-hee through the film is fantastic, and the chemistry that she shares with the equally impressive Kim Min-hee really gives the film its most fascinating and unorthodox relationship.
The Handmaiden arrives on Blu-ray from Sony on a 50GB disc and in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed in its original aspect ratio of 2.40.1 widescreen. This feature was shot digitally and it shows all the clarity and color you'd expect, presenting a pristine picture with excellent detail and depth. Color reproduction really shines here as well, and the disc presents great black levels and good shadow detail. Detail and texture are generally outstanding even if a few shots look a tad softer than others. There are no noticeable issues with compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction. There's nothing to complain about here, really, it's a beautiful transfer of an immaculate source.
The only audio option for the disc is a Korean language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, with subtitles provided in English, English SDH and Spanish. While this might not offer up the bombastic sort of surround mix that the latest Hollywood action film can provide, it's a very immersive mix in its own right. The use of music in the film is excellent and it will frequently fill the surrounds in a way that really brings you further into the story. The dialogue is crystal clear and there are no issues at all with any hiss or distortion. Levels are nicely balanced from start to finish and there's good depth and range here. Again, Sony has done a really nice job on the technical merits of the presentation.
There are no extras on this disc aside from menus and chapter selection. It would have been nice to get the longer cut of the film or a commentary or maybe some interviews with the cast and crew to go along with a film this well made, but unfortunately for whatever reason Sony didn't opt to take this release in that direction.
Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden is, in a word, excellent. It's a visually arresting picture that deals in complex relationships between complex characters and despite a running time of almost three hours, it never feels dull or sluggish. The performances are excellent and the technical merits of Sony's Blu-ray release are very strong despite the absence of any extra features. Highly recommended (until an inevitable features-laden release comes along from a European or Asian label).
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.