Director Chan-wook Park is not afraid to push buttons. He’s not afraid to be different. Not afraid to indulge.
The Handmaiden may be Chan-wook Park’s most button-pushing, different, indulgent film to date.
In 1930s Korea, a woman named Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired to be the handmaiden of a wealthy Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). But nothing is what meets the eye. Nothing. Sook-hee is conning Hideko under hire from a smarmy Count (Jung-woo Ha). Deep overtones of eroticism stake their claim to this narrative, as well as the left-of-center upbringing of Lady Hideko.
Themes of abuse, suicide, sex, and deception run rampant through The Handmaiden. It is an exploitation film. But it is a beautiful one. Nearly every shot, lavishly lit and poignantly staged, yields a tapestry. A series of shots—a tad too many in a lesser film—depicting merely shifting glances tell an entire story, wordlessly. One scene consisting of two women clinically undressing each other use the characters’ turning directions to illustrate a curious and questioning oscillation of distance and intimacy.
The film is more beautiful than it has any right to be. Such a phrase—“too ____ than is has the right to be”—is generally a reductive concept, because it is based on the premise that expectations should delineate the box that a film should live within. Why the sentiment works in the sense of this film is quite simple: The Handmaiden is utterly gratuitous.
Lengthy sex scenes, uncensored and unflinching, break up the story. Similarly unflinching are the lengthy scenes of underground erotica readings, full of men comically holding their groins at the anticipation for the next raunchy line. One could call this film smut, if it were not for how expertly it is all put together.
Chan-wook Park is no stranger to exploitation tropes. His films are full of violence and sexual themes that are inextricably linked to the characters’ psyches. Oldboy and Stoker engage in incestuous themes and plots. The visual insanity of some of Oldboy‘s best scenes could be considered hyper-violent (that hallway hammer fight scene, for one).
The Handmaiden uses its low culture tropes in fascinating ways, though. There is something honest about the sheer sexual nature of the film’s sex sequences, the lack of restraint. It is intimate in both a sensual and uncomfortably close way. While indulgent to the nth degree, these scenes add to the story being weaved.
This story is a delightful mixture of psychological thriller, haunted house horror, and period piece drama. Tropes of all three break their way through without the film becoming tonally cluttered. Indeed, plenty moments of the film can be equally comedic and uncomfortable. Awkward laughter in a theater never felt so right.
The Handmaiden may dwell on its most controversial parts. It relishes in its own exploitation while also contributing to an earnest narrative. Despite all of this, the film is something to behold, an achievement of visual storytelling.
The Handmaiden: A-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)