10 out of 10
Min-hee Kim as Lady Hideko
Directed by Park Chan-wook
The Handmaiden Review:
First, a word about the rating (and ratings in particular) – number ratings for films may be a quick way to see whether or not a movie is good, but they also dramatically fail at letting readers know whether or not the film is good for them. I have no problem rating a film a 10 out of 10 (which I have here for The Handmaiden), because, for me, that’s just how profoundly the film worked on me. Number reviews are like trying to capture water by pinning it with a needle; they rarely adequately describe just how good a movie is, because while I firmly believe that there is art that is objectively good, and not merely an opinion, that doesn’t mean everyone will see it that way. Especially at a film festival like Fantastic Fest, reviews tend to become a bit hyperbolic in the frenzy and the majesty of the moment, but those are also the cinematic memories that tend to stick with you. So a 10 out of 10 can mean a lot of things; but for me it means an amazing movie experience that I won’t forget.
Besides, when it comes to the cinema of Park Chan-wook, anyone who loves movies knows that the man is a genius, if not for his masterpiece Oldboy alone. His entire Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance) is essential viewing, from his masterful use of cinematography and score, to the sheer power of his stories to provoke and disturb. His films have a gloss and a sheen to them, and elegance not unlike the directing of Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher. They are almost ethereal and otherworldly, but they also dwell on humanity’s baser natures as well as our triumphs. He is, simply put, one of the best filmmakers alive today; even the films he’s made that don’t quite work still have moments of brilliance. But when Park is firing on all cylinders, there are very few directors, alive or dead, who can come close to the majesty of his best work.
The Handmaiden is one of Park Chan-wook’s very best films. Full or sweeping romance, sex, intrigue, revenge, and power, this tale of a street thief, a wealthy recluse, and a con man circling each other in love, deceit, and abandon. The Handmaiden doesn’t shy away from the explicit nature of the material, and like Park Chan-wook’s other films, doesn’t shy away from moments of intensity and explosive violence. But what’s most surprising about The Handmaiden is just how hilarious it can be, especially in moments of tension that, under any other director, would seemingly be diffused by the humor. Instead, the humor and intensity go hand-in-hand; we are laughing even as we cringe.
Based on the novel by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is a a three act structured film, telling three distinct stories – the story of Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), a young thief who decides to join her mentor, a conman who has assumed the identity of a noble Japanese count, to woo and abandon a young recluse who is the niece of a wealthy Japanese book collector (Jin-woong Jo). If the Count (Jung-woo Ha) marries Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), he becomes the owner of her considerable inheritance and assets. The Count intends to abandon Lady Hideko to an insane asylum – her family has a history of it, including Lady Hideko’s beloved aunt, who committed suicide – and split the proceeds with Sook-Hee. But there are wheels within wheels, and Sook-Hee finds herself falling in love with Lady Hideko. Soon the betrayals begin, but what appears to be duplicity soon becomes something much deeper and more treacherous.
Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography is sumptuous and elegant – the camera flows like a ghost over the film, deliberately and with grace, including the film’s sex scenes, which are raw, stylish, but never gratuitous. There is beauty even in the despair and the depraved. Composer Yeong-wook Jo’s work a substantial and sophisticated – Park has always had a great ear for his soundtracks, and the exquisite, delicate score never betrays the movie. Park Chan-wook’s films have always looked amazing, but none as much as The Handmaiden, with the glorious backdrops of both Korea and Japan. The Handmaiden is a visual and audio feast – you sip at this film, like wine.
The performances are also wonderful, especially with the complexities of the material, and the shifts in loyalty that these characters undergo. Like in Oldboy, the motivations of Sook-Hee, Lady Hideko, and Count Fujiwara are not always clear, and with each new piece of information that the film feeds us, the paradigm shifts with real grace and surprise. But it never cheats on those twists, and The Handmaiden is probably a film that should be seen multiple times to get the full emotional impact, because the way the mercurial plot moves can be elusive to those not paying attention.
The Handmaiden is one of Park Chan-wook’s finest films – sexy, riveting, and an emotional and intellectual rollercoaster ride. It rewards those who commit to it fully; while long (over two hours and forty minutes), The Handmaiden takes its audience on a magnificent and powerful journey through the duplicitous nature of the human heart. Park Chan-wook makes it all feel so effortless, but The Handmaiden has a power and a sweeping romance to it that is difficult to shake. Once you see The Handmaiden, you may find it difficult to put it out of your mind. Masterpieces tend to do that.