Those who are familiar with Park Chan-wook's style of work understand just how strange, yet impactful his films can be. From Oldboy to Stoker, he's constantly pushing the boundaries of what film is expected to do. Regardless of how violent his features can be, it's the psychological impact that sticks with the viewer for quite some time after the credits are done rolling. After making some noise at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, The Handmaiden was destined to join his growing list of films to make you laugh, cheer, and squirm all at the same time.
Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a well-trained thief, who has been tasked with going undercover as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress named Lady Hideki (Min-hee Kim). Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) has formulated a plan that ends in his marriage to the heiress, and him putting her in a mental hospital to obtain all of her assets. However, their greed binds them to a fate that will change their lives forever.
While the con is the framework for the film, The Handmaiden is a rich and complex feature that goes far beyond the expected. Park Chan-wook's adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel is split into three parts. They each tackle a slightly different perspective, all of which intertwine with the other sections. The first part of the story is told from Sook-Hee's perspective, as she believes that the situation is completely in her control. However, she becomes close with Lady Hideko, and begins to feel a certain amount of hesitation about the whole plan. The further that we get into this story, the more crazy things become, as a seemingly endless amount of twists and turns begin to unfold. Just when you think that you have The Handmaiden figured out, it pulls the rug out from underneath us once again.
Park Chan-wook works with a wide array of themes that provide the film with an enormous amount of depth. The three major topics include gender, sexuality, and culture; all of which interconnect extraordinarily well. These themes allow the characters to flourish quite nicely. Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko become increasingly engrossing over the course of the story, allowing the long duration to feel a little bit more acceptable. The relationship between the two leads provides dramatic tension, as well as some surprisingly effective humor. The Handmaiden thrives in its dark comedic tone, which allows the more bonkers story elements to feel more natural.
Those who criticized Blue is the Warmest Color for its sex scenes will certainly be up in arms about how graphic this erotic drama can become. The film clearly condemns the male gaze, which is personified in Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo). Some will find Park Chan-wook's use of such scenes to be counteractive, but it's actually the exact opposite. This is the filmmaker placing a mirror in front of the audience, as we're being criticized for our own gaze. While there's a bit of a lull towards the end of the second act, The Handmaiden remains as an incredibly focused feature that knows exactly what it wants to accomplish. When the credits are done rolling, this is sure to stick with you for quite some time.
The character dynamics are quite tricky, which is why the performances deserve a large amount of credit. Kim Tae-ri is absolutely phenomenal as Sook-Hee. She handles her character arc incredibly well, especially in the transitions between drama and dark comedy. Min-hee Kim is tremendous as Lady Hideko. She has a dynamic range that is constantly put to the test throughout the running time. This is a difficult role with a lot of depth that could have easily felt disjointed, but Kim makes it look easy. The chemistry that develops between Tae-ri and Kim is fantastic, as it allows the film to truly captivate its audience.
Park Chan-wook has truly made himself known for his storytelling and visual design. The Handmaiden continues to prove that he's a master of placing viewers in a trance. He has a beautiful use of cinematography that adds an eerie atmosphere to the film, which is guaranteed to leave a mark. Framing continues to be a major strength of his, as well. He utilizes the camera in ways that challenges what we expect to see. This is all complimented by a captivating score that manages to ooze with a sense of eerie curiosity. There isn't a doubt that the production values will leave you in awe.
The Handmaiden is a relentless powerhouse of an erotic drama. Writer/director Park Chan-wook executes the story's series of twists and turns in a way that constantly keeps the audience guessing until its final frame. The film's stellar combination of dark comedy, drama, and romance has resulted in one of the most memorable movies of the year. The Handmaiden is reminiscent of classic Park Chan-wook in the way that it commands our attention; it's spell-bindingly beautiful. Highly recommended!