The Handmaiden

Movie Information

The Story: Love and betrayal complicate a young thief's aspirations when a ploy to con a wealthy heiress out of her fortune is complicated by a forbidden romance. The Lowdown: Scintillating, sexy and seriously strange, Park Chan-wook's latest film is a departure for the director and a delight for audiences.
Genre: Asian Gothic Noir Romance
Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Tae Ri Kim, Ha Jung-woo, Jo Jin-woong, Kim Hae-suk, Moon So-ri
Rated: NR


Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a film defined not only by its stunning stylistic sensibilities and the flawless execution of its complex narrative conceit. Perhaps more significant is the place it will inevitably take among the very best of the director’s work thus far and as a maturational turning point in his oeuvre. As a longtime fan of Park’s films, it’s a bold statement for me to say this might be my new favorite — and I’m delighted to be able to say exactly that. The Handmaiden manages to be sexy, funny, dark and more than a little creepy in the process of delivering a compelling and entertaining story. In short, it’s pretty great.

Moviegoers familiar with Park’s earlier work will recognize the director’s visual signature immediately, but those expecting little more than a return to form will be pleasantly surprised by the new ground broken here. Park has always dealt with intensely personal stories bearing an unmistakable perversity and penchant for the bizarre — and that’s certainly true of The Handmaiden — but what’s truly remarkable about this film is Park’s delving into territory previously unexplored. The man responsible for Oldboy and Thirst has somewhat improbably made a love story, and it absolutely works in defiance of my initial skepticism.


To discuss the narrative in too much detail would give away its serpentine plot twists, which would be a genuine shame. Despite the thousands of hours of film and countless purported “twists” I’ve endured, The Handmaiden still managed to take me by surprise. The basic setup follows an illiterate thief enlisted in a plot to swindle a sheltered heiress out of her fortune, but the scheme falls apart quickly when she starts to fall in love with her mark. The resultant sapphic romance is depicted with a sensuality that belies its persistent male gaze, and the sex scenes, while explicit, never come across as exploitative. This is due in no small part to the careful attention Park and co-screenwriter Chung Seo-Kyung have paid to characterization and narrative structure. Every detail has a purpose rooted in character development and plot motivation, and each plant is paid off so expertly this script should become a fixture in screenwriting courses henceforth.


Park’s film is loosely adapted from author Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, a 2002 novel set in Victorian England, and transposes the story to 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation. This shift in venue is more effective than one might imagine and leads to some intriguing statements on cultural colonialism as a proxy for the repression of sexual identity. Park and Chung’s script knows when to deviate from the source material, adopting the general tripartite structure of the book but creating something largely original in terms of the broader plot. Each chapter recounts events from the perspective of one of the central characters, and the result is profoundly cathartic without feeling contrived when the twisted plot threads finally come together in full clarity. It’s a bit like The Maltese Falcon meets Wuthering Heights with a large dose of Rashomon. I can safely say I never could’ve reasonably expected Asian Gothic Noir Romance to be a conflation of genres that I would love so much.


Beyond the conceptual overtones of the narrative, The Handmaiden is a film driven by atmosphere. Park accomplishes this through a number of inventive strategies, not the least of which is setting the majority of the film in a hybridized mansion that incorporates English and Japanese architectural traditions, yielding an otherworldly feel far more disturbing than anything achieved in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. Park extends this affective mode to all aspects of the film (including a score seemingly inspired by Kubrick’s use of Krzysztof Penderecki in The Shining) and diegetic sounds that bleed from one scene into the next, persistently undermining the viewer’s sense of structural discernment and contributing to a growing sense of tension and unease. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Park Chan-wook film without some creative and gratuitous violence, but you’ll have to wait for the last reel before the filmmaker indulges in his heretofore traditional stock-in-trade.


I don’t know that I’ve ever come across a film I can recommend from so many different angles as The Handmaiden. Those disappointed in October’s horror offerings should find this psychosexual thriller satisfyingly spooky. Anyone looking for a black comedy on par with A Man Called Ove need look no further. Moviegoers left flat by lesbian sex scenes in films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive will be suitably titillated. Most importantly, art house film lovers with an interest in meticulous plotting and exquisite cinematic style will find Park’s latest nothing short of masterful. I can’t say it’s a film for everyone. But, if anything I’ve mentioned remotely sparks your interest, then The Handmaiden is a must see. Subtitled. Unrated.

Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.


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