Movie Review: The Handmaiden.
Korean phenom Park Chan-Wook spins a lush period drama about sex and betrayal that is every bit as unflinching as his earlier works.
In our spoiler free review, we look at Park Chan-Wook’s erotic drama The Handmaiden. Fans of his previous works, such as the Sympathy for Vengeance trilogy will find many familiar aspects, and as long as you are fine with some very explicit erotica you should enjoy this tale.
Park Chan-Wook lit up the international scene with the second movie of his Sympathy trilogy: Old Boy. It was such a success that Josh Brolin and Samuel L. Jackson were cast in an American remake directed by Spike Lee. Many scenes from that film were iconic and often imitated (I’m looking at you, Daredevil). With such a unique directorial vision, many were wondering if Park’s signature style would carry over to an erotic, period-piece drama. In short: yae.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Sook Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) is a scoundrel and grifter. The daughter of a notorious pick-pocket, she lives with a collection of fences; stealing, conning and forging their way towards a living. Enter “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo), a Korean con artist passing himself off as a Japanese aristocrat. It is 1930 in Korea, and Japan has thoroughly occupied the country. Living a meager existence at the hands of the occupiers, Fujiwara has hatched a scheme to both strike back at the Japanese oppressors and, conveniently enough, enrich himself in the process. He intends to seduce Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee), the heiress to a vast fortune. To accomplish this, he sends in Sook Hee as servant whose job is to turn Hideko’s heart towards Fujiwara. Her fortune is safeguarded by her uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong), a bibliophile and all around pervert who keeps his ward a virtual prisoner. Thus begins our tale of ever shifting alliances; a heist movie, love story, and thriller all baked into one.
Park Chan-Wook has an eye for luscious, nearly decadent visuals. Even the slums and seedy hotels of Old Boy were awash in beauty. He has lost none of that flair in The Handmaiden. The castle home of Kouzuki is a stunningly beautiful amalgamation, European and Asian influences welded together into a collection of light and dark, vibrant colors contrasting with shadow. Hideko’s would-be prison of a house is tight and claustrophobic, juxtaposed with the wide open fields that surround her jail. Every visual sells the narrative of a bird trapped in a luxurious cage and the rogue outside world attempting to break that cage open (for their own selfish reasons, of course).
A Kiss Before Lying.
Another aspect of Park’s directorial style is how visceral each shot is. His lens conjures all the senses, presenting scents such that you feel you can almost smell them, and even the way that the consumption of a simple candy makes it seem that the sweetness has crossed your own lips. In one scene Sook Hee and Hideko share a kiss so physical that it reminded me of the scene in Old Boy where Dae-Su eats a live octopus immediately after being freed. The unblinking camera captures the still writhing creature being devoured by our protagonist, and it was so sensual, so “meaty” that I was captivated. The same technique is utilized here: a long, hard close up of our heroines inexpertly mauling each other with their tongues (It’s no wonder the gold standard is French kissing: Korean kissing would never have taken off in Victorian Europe, but I digress.) From Fujiwara’s affected smoking technique to Kouzuki’s erotic book recitals, every aspect of the film begs you to experience it as a surrogate to the participants.
A Turn of the Screw.
That deeply ingrained empathy also sells the final part of Park’s trifecta: the narrative shift. A good Park Chan-Wook film is on par with a good M. Night Shyamalan film: it shows you all the pieces of the puzzle in a way that makes the reveals seem both obvious and brilliant. Park manages this by periodically changing the lens we are viewing the movie through. In each act the protagonist we follow shifts, taking turns living in Sook-Hee, Hideko, and Fujiwara’s skin, and it makes all the twists and turns enjoyable. It’s a gorgeous cloak that hides the dagger.
Sympathy for Erotic Vengeance.
As stated above, the film is visceral and unflinching. As such, the only caveat that needs be mentioned is how erotic this erotic drama is. Like Icarus flying towards the sun, this film dares to edge ever closer to pornography. It largely succeeds because it is so baked into every aspect of the plot that it doesn’t feel gratuitous, but it is not shy in the least. Anyone uncomfortable with visual representations of sex will probably feel bombarded by the sexuality; it permeates the verbiage, visuals and audio. It is at turns coarse and romantic, vulgar and beautiful. But one thing it is not, is coy.
This is a fantastic movie, and it felt fresh and entertaining even with a two and a half hour run time. While it is subtitled, the film is so vibrant and emotive that missing a bit of dialogue here and there won’t mar the experience. In fact, if you could turn the subtitles off and just watch how “alive” this film is, you might have a better time. Though you would miss the wonderful word play where different characters appropriate each others line in order to shift the meaning. It’s a tight dramatic thriller, full of emotion and visual spectacle. I recommend this film, even if you have to fight a room full of thugs with nothing other than a ball-peen hammer to get into the theater.
(*Editor’s Note: If you want to skip the hallway full of thugs, you could always hop on over to The Space Gallery in Portland which is showing the film, or see it streaming on Vudu.)