The Handmaiden Review

Posted: November 27, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

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Written by Daniel Simpson

It’s easy to judge a film based on genre or other trappings and that often leads to films being mislabeled. Take the career of Cronenberg, who started his career by making some really perverse body horror films which explored identity and change with movies like Videodrome and The Fly. As his films went on, the premises read like more standard movie plots; a family man’s violent past confronts him, a crime tale involving Russian gangsters, a movie about Sigmund Freud. However on closer inspection, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method were just as perverse and challenging as the overt horror movies Cronenberg built his name on. I bring all of this up because a similar thing can be noticed with Park Chan-wook’s newest film, The Handmaiden. Though the film has the trappings of a more traditional prestige period piece, the film is every bit as twisted as the thrillers that made him famous.

The Handmaiden is set around what I’m guessing is the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Specifically, the focus is on a pair of Korean con-artists; the pickpocket Sook-he (Kim Tae-ri) and a man posing as a Japanese Count named Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). Fujiwara has chosen his next mark: wealthy Japanese heiress Lady Hideko, who has been restricted to her large estate by her domineering uncle. Fujiwara plans to seduce Hideko and marry into her fortune, then declare her insane and have her locked in a mental institute. Sook-he will pose as Hideko’s handmaiden, and is to help push Hideko into loving Fujiwara. The two begin their scheme, but overtime Sook-he grows increasingly fond of Hideko. As their bond grows more intimate, Sook-he has reservations about the con.

Don’t let the period trappings fool you; The Handmaiden is not a merchant-ivory esque exploration of the upper class. Yes, the mansion that Lady Hideko lives in is exquisite, there is some very strong production value, and the costumes are detailed/period appropriate, but this film has little interest in exploring the lives of the wealthy or the nuanced differences of their world. Rather, this is a con movie and it operates as such. The plot takes a lot of twists and turns (the description above is basically just the first act) as the narrative progresses. The deeper in, the weirder and more perverse the story becomes. Purely on a surface level, this is an incredibly engaging storyline which keeps you on your toes. Just when you think it’s fallen into an easy groove, the script takes a divergent turn which is unexpected yet still feels appropriate. Chan-wook also brings a high degree of energy to the proceedings in keeping with the film’s con job storyline. There are some really fluid camera movements, aggressive angles, and the editing really keeps the plot moving. The performances are also heightened and, even subtitled, the dialogue here seems remarkably witty. Credit is almost certainly due to Sarah Waters for her original novel The Fingersmith, but kudos as well too Chan-wook and co-screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung, who adapted this material to a new setting and did so brilliantly.

In addition to its gripping plotline, The Handmaiden also serves as a very interesting character study of two women who are both living in various forms of oppression. Sook-he and Hideko are both fascinating characters who are both a lot more complex than they seem on the surface. Hideko in particular seems like one thing at first, but eventually reveals a whole other side as time goes by. It’s engrossing to watch the two develop a relationship. I won’t talk too much about how this relationship unfolds (it dips into spoilers), but I will say there’s a ton of material here from a gender studies’ perspective both overtly and more subtly. Even if you choose not to consider the greater gender implications however, the storyline between the two is excellent in its own right. Both characters are fully fleshed personalities which contrast each other nicely and the performances from Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee are both awesome.

The Handmaiden can also be studied from a national perspective, though I’m definitely not the best person to analyze this. My knowledge of Korean history is virtually non-existent, but the fact that the film is set during a period of Japanese occupation is certainly important. There’s a sense that the Japanese are able to dominate through wealth and affluence, and the Koreans are somewhat resentful/envious of this power. However the dynamic isn’t as simple as haves vs. have nots. There is also dialogue which reflects the ways in which the Japanese have been influenced by the British and are themselves seeking to be something else. There’s also a general trend in the film of characters suppressing who they are and trying to achieve more, but the film doesn’t necessarily condemn this universally. I’m not quite sure what to make of these elements, but these themes are certainly there and well worth diving onto on repeat viewings. On a first viewing however, The Handmaiden offers all sorts of other pleasures. One doesn’t need to fully unpack Park Chan-wook’s national statements to appreciate the great performances, twisting narrative, or some amazing scenes.

All told, it’s hard to really argue with The Handmaiden. This is an awesome movie which excels in just about every way. It’s a great story with great characters, it’s thematically rich, it’s made with a high degree of craftsmanship and style, and it also features a pretty great score. The closest thing I can think of as a flaw would be that the ending maybe stretches on just a little bit. The broad details of the ending are great, but the film could have probably ended on an earlier moment and had been just as effective. Really though, that’s the most minor of quibbles. The only reason I bring it up is because the rest of the movie is so damn awesome. So yeah, I loved The Handmaiden. It’s easily one of the best films of the year and I’d also argue it eclipses Oldboy as Park Chan-wook’s best film.

A+

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