The Handmaiden and all the images you see in this review are owned by CJ Entertainment
Directed by Chan-wook Park
I have been waiting to see this one for a while now which is somewhat depressing considering all the other film critics got to see it some time ago, but on the other hand at least I was lucky enough to see at all which a lot of other people haven’t been lucky enough to do yet. Now all the way back in 2010 (I think) when Netflix was still delivering DVDs, the first movie I ever watched when I took the plunge into their streaming service was oddly enough Sympathy for Lady Vengeance which… I guess doesn’t REALLY have any significance, but it was my introduction to Chan-wook Park’s work, and I ended up watching Old Boy not too long after that. If you aren’t aware already, this is a guy who is an absolute legend that we get to experience in his prime; on par with the greats like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and John Waters. Okay… that last one was for me, but there are comparisons to be made between those two as Chan-wook Park, like Waters, finds humor and absurdity in people just being people. Now to be fair, Park tends to go in a much darker direction with that concept, especially in films like Thirst which is about someone desperately trying to find a way to live as a vampire while maintaining his humanity, but its honestly these touches along with his technical acumen that has led him to stand out and garner all the critical praise that he has. So is his latest film yet another example of this director being just as brilliant as everyone says he is, or are the cracks starting to show now that his work has been at the bleeding edge of film discourse for over a decade now? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins in Japanese occupied Korea with Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) who’s been recruited by Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) who’s managed to drag himself out of the lower class but still doesn’t have the kind of money he needs to truly be accepted into high society. What is Sook-Hee recruited for? Well he has a plan to rob this rich guy known simply as Uncle Kouzuk (Cho Jin-woong) who’s niece Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is the inheritor a vast fortune. Count Fujiwara plans to have Sook-hee go undercover as the titular Handmaiden to Lady Hideko and will gain her trust so that she can start convincing her that this dashing new suitor is the PERFECT husband. Once married, Count Fujiwara will lock Lady Hideko in an insane asylum (which I’m guessing wasn’t all that hard to do back in those days) and split some of the money with Sook-hee. Now obviously things don’t go exactly as planned as we watch Sook-hee get closer and closer to Lady Hideko, and we learn more and more about the life she’s led and how her uncle has treated her since her aunt died some time ago. Will Sook-hee go through with the plan that will get her all the money she could ever need, or will her feelings make it impossible to do so? Will Count Fujiwara be able to stay civil long enough for the plan to even work in the first place? Just what the heck is going on in that library they keep bringing up!?
Well then. This was certainly something! It’s always fun checking out another Chan-wook Park (or is it Park Chan-wook?) movie as he’s easily one of the most interesting directors working today; in Hollywood and outside of it, and this film shows no sign of slowing down for the guy’s unique brand of over the top and gut wrenching drama. Now of the films of his I’ve seen which are Old Boy, Lady Vengeance, and Thirst, I’d say that this one is probably on the same level as Lady Vengeance even though I did enjoy this one much more and it’s honesty hard to compare this movie to ANYTHING else. It has its influences as it feels like a mash up of several different genre’s (haunted house, the big grift, women fighting against the patriarchy, slapstick, etc), but it’s wholly unique in its execution and isn’t like anything else you’ll see this year. Okay, TECHNICALLY it’s based on a book (Fingersmith by Sarah Waters), but I never read that book so it’s wholly unique to me! Also, it looks like they took a lot of liberties with it, especially with the setting, so it’s still Chan-wook Park’s absurd and engrossing vision that made it onto the screen which is why this movie works so well and is easily one of the best films of the year.
There’s really not much to talk about in terms of flaws as Chan-wook Park continues to prove he’s a master of his craft, so let’s focus on where his strengths as a director shine the brightest. For me, it has to be the characters who are all wonderfully crafted and show a wide range of emotions throughout that makes them all the more believable as real people; even in a movie that’s all about deception. It’s a series of layers upon layers as each character has their turn to reveal to the audience their own treachery and deceit; putting them in a new light for subsequent scenes as little clues and affectations reveal themselves. Well… I will say the Sook-hee is pretty straightforward, at least to the audience, as her plan is revealed right up front so we know what she’s all about from the beginning, but what that does is make her that much more of an audience avatar as her reactions mimic our own whenever secrets are revealed. She does have at least one twist that the audience (or at least some of them) won’t see coming, but for the most part she’s very grounded and easy for the audience to attach to. It’s quite remarkable how well Chan-wook Park is able to weave these characters’ narratives together in a way that always has you questioning who it is you should be rooting for, which is what you want from movies that rely heavily on misdirection and big twists instead of just saving it all up for the last minute.
In addition to the great characters and the solid structure (the movie shows one side of the story and then goes back to show the same story from a different perspective), the movie is just fascinating to watch from scene to scene. Sure, there are a FEW moments in here that aren’t as engaging as others (it takes a bit of time for the scenes between Sook-hee and Lady Hideko to really pack a punch), but each scene brings something new to the table as Chan-wook Park always has something up his sleeve. I mean, it wouldn’t be a Chan-wook Park movie if he didn’t fill it with all sorts of weird stuff, am I right? There’s a puppet that comes out of nowhere for one of the characters to straddle, there’s a scene where Sook-hee is rubbing one of Lady Hideko’s teeth while staring at her naked body in the bathtub that goes on for a REALLY long time, and probably my favorite, he actually had a vagina POV shot with one of the characters staring right into the camera telling the audience how beautiful it is. Yeah, you get you’re fair share of weirdness to go along with the dramatic moments. Even with all that though, more often than not the tension releasing moments come in the form of hilarious comedy bits that humanizes the characters quite a bit which means that, on top of this being one of the most engaging and well-crafted films of the year, it’s also one of the funniest. Along with some of his absurd sensibilities, his ability to throw solid comedy into the drama has always been a huge source of strength in his movies and might be the reason why he’s managed to reach into the mainstream far more than most other directors from non-English speaking countries as humor is something that crosses a lot of cultural boundaries. Is everyone gonna understand the significance of the Japanese occupation of Korea in fleshing out the world this story takes place in? No, but they ARE gonna laugh when Sook-hee hits her head out of nowhere, and that’s what’ll help people connect to her when things take a turn for the dramatic. As much as the guy seems to be technical perfectionist considering how carefully crafted all of his movies are, he also knows that none of that matters (or is greatly diminished) without heart or humanity at the center of it which is often weirder and sillier than we like to admit, even to ourselves. This either makes him a compassionate Christopher Nolan or the refined and disciplined Hideo Kojima, and either way it’s why his voice has carried so strongly in the world of film since Old Boy.
Of course, there is one more thing that needs to be discussed and that the sexual politics that are at the heart of this movie; both in terms of having such an explicit lesbian romance (and by explicit, I mean graphic depictions of nudity and intercourse) in a movie that’s so high minded, as well as the underlying theme of sexual objectification and exploitation; particularly by entitled men. As far as the first point, it’s honestly not THAT strange to have hot steamy sex scenes in movies that aspire for cultural greatness (*cough* Black Swan *cough*) but there’s always a certain stereotype about movies of this type that aren’t gonna appeal to Joe Q Public for being stuffy and portentous while shallower fare gives them the boobs they’re there for in the first place. In all honestly, I can kind of agree that there are several examples of erotic cinema (at least as far as I’ve seen) that tend to be drawn out and uninteresting (*cough*Betty Blue *cough*) or they focus on sexuality in a really unappealing light (*cough* Nymphomaniac *cough*), but then I don’t think those are the kind of movies they’ve even HEARD of. Now I don’t know if this movie being really engaging while also sexually appealing will be enough to get through to many in the mainstream, and especially those who refuse to read subtitles, but it manages to be both an entertaining and sizzling ride while also being about something important and having respect for the intelligence of its audience. Speaking of the message, I’m sure there are plenty of other people who can dissect the meaning here far better than I possibly could, but to me it was mostly about entitlement as the men are constantly using the women around them for their nefarious ends; both sexual and not. Lady Hideko’s backstory is all about her being treated more as a doll to be treasured rather than a real person which is basically the textbook definition of objectification. She’s expected to be perfect which no person can truly be, but she’s forced to make that effort (even VIOLENTLY forced) and the abusive strain of it all… well it leads to a lot of what she ends up doing in this movie. There’s more here to unravel, but I don’t want to get too much into spoilers (and I’d probably do a poor job explaining all the themes and deeper meanings), so I’d just advise you to go see the damn thing and find out exactly what its’ all about.
Now the film isn’t quite perfect as I do have a few things to take issue with. While the second part that shows us the story from Lady Hideko’s point of view is fantastic and completely upends our understanding of the movie we’ve seen so far, I feel that it does belabor the point a bit. The movie does run long at over two hours, and if there’s one area I think some cuts could have been made, it was in that section where some of the scenes are even repeated from the earlier part of the movie. Now these are necessary as it further cements just how different the situation plays out when from a new perspective, but cutting out a few minutes here and a few minutes there could have helped the movie move along at a better pace. Also, I’m still not entirely sure what Count Fujiwara’s backstory is as he seems to have relationships with EVERYONE and I never really got a sense of how he ended up here in the first place. Maybe a repeat viewing will help as I might have missed it the first time around, but considering how well everyone else’s backstories are drawn (even if it’s just in a few lines), it seems odd that he seems to have come out of thin air and really only exists to keep the plot moving. Also, he makes a decision at the tail end of the movie that makes him look particularly foolish and kind of undercuts his character somewhat considering his one defining trait is how well he is at working angles. The guy, at least from what I can tell, worked his ass off as a thief and criminal in his youth before… somehow getting rich (or at least looks like he’s rich?) which is why he’s so good at what he does in this movie, but it all falls a bit flat once he does that ONE idiotic thing that I can’t really talk about further without revealing spoilers. Now you could argue that what he ends up falling for makes sense considering what this movie is ultimately about, but I never really felt that he was the kind of guy who this movie was taking critical aim at (that’s more of what the Uncle is for), and the movie even makes it clear in a scene prior that his fatal flaw is something COMPLETELY different from what eventually gets him in the end. Maybe I was interpreting the character wrong in this, but it felt a bit anti-climactic for his character arc to end on that note.
Considering how many movies I see for this website, it’s very easy to fall into a routine and have everything just blur together. The good stuff, the bad stuff, it all stays in my head long enough to write the review and then gets packed away; only to be recalled if I need to make a comparison or at the end of the year when I do my Best Worst lists. This movie? This one will probably stick around a bit longer than the rest which is honestly to be expected from Chan-wook Park who’s proven to be one of the most important contemporary voices in cinema. If you get the chance, you really should check this out at the theater, but at this point it’s probably gonna be tough to find a theater that’s screening it; especially considering Amazon will be releasing it on their video service in January. Hell, even if you don’t want to wait for that, the Region A blu-ray is already out which works on North and South American blu ray players, so there are plenty of ways to check this movie out. Whatever method you use, it’ll be well worth it as this is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year, provided of course you’re not afraid to read subtitles. Seriously, who would pass on something this good just because they had to read!?
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