the handmaiden review

Park Chan-wook has spent much of his career being compared to the great Alfred Hitchock and The Handmaiden isn’t going to stop that. But there’s something to be said for a modern filmmaker being constantly placed side-by-side with one of the greatest directors of all time and there’s something more to be said when that director was known for his range and his willingness to take risks. Yes, Park’s films are Hitchockian in that they’re technically precise thrillers, but they’re also Hitchcockian because they muddle elements of horror and black comedy into the mix. And with The Handmaiden, Park proves that he can also match Mr. Hitchock in another category – he too is gloriously perverted.

That is high praise, of course. The Handmaiden is a film about shaping narratives, about the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we choose the divulge to others (and often, about when and why the truth comes to light). It’s the kind of psychological thriller where the words coming out of everyone’s mouths have to be second-guessed, where sorting out the narrative tangles requires active and gleeful participation on the part of the viewer. And so much of this is couched in the most human and most hidden subject possible: sex, and lots of it. When The Handmaiden isn’t being the sexiest movie released in the year 2016, it’s being the least sexy movie released in the year 2016.

Through Park’s lens, sex lurks behind every decision and half-truth and scheme. The portrayal of sexuality in The Handmaiden is genuinely sensual, but it can also be deeply disturbing and frequently hilarious. Sex is wonderful and frightening and funny. It elevates and it depraves. It opens you up or it boxes you in a corner. It’s why anyone does anything.

Set in Korea in the 1930s, The Handmaiden starts with a small handful of lies and grows from there. Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-hee, the new handmaiden to a wealthy Japanese heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). But Sook-hee isn’t there to serve – she’s there as the inside woman for an ambitious criminal named Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who plans to pose as a count and woo Hideko away from her cruel adoptive uncle (Cho Jin-woong) before he takes her hand in marriage. One her fortune has been secured, Fujiwara will toss his new wife in an insane asylum, pay Sook-hee her cut, and everyone will walk away a little richer.

And oh, if only it were that simple. Because Fujiwara doesn’t count on Sook-hee and Lady Hideko falling for one another. And no one counted on there being another half dozen motivations and desires lurking under the surface. The Handmaiden‘s straightforward first act is the distraction – the real magic trick is happening elsewhere. Park gleefully distracts the audience with disarming comedy and romance, allowing Hideko and Sook-hee to legitimately meet cute and letting their courtship be awkward and sensuous in equal measure. When the rug gets pulled (and it gets pulled hard), you’re surprised without being surprised. This is a Park Chan-wook film, after all. The masterful filmmaker responsible for Oldboy and Stoker is so very exceptional when it comes to exploring the twisted motivations of mad men and the psychological fallout of violence and abuse.

It certainly helps that Park’s cast is so very game. Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee are the stars of this show and the camera never lets you forget that both are beautiful women whether they’re clothed or not. However, their performances are more than a few explicit sex scenes. They are two women living in a patriarchal society, struggling under the thumb of dominating men who see them as tools and bargaining chips. They’re as funny as they are sexy, often reacting to the absurd machinations of the increasingly twisted plot as one would to a comedic farce – how the hell did we get this deep and how do we get out of this? As criminal overlord and uncle, Ha Jung-woon and Cho Jin-woong are frightening until they’re not, slowly exposing how their seemingly unbreakable masculinity masks men who are petty and broken and not nearly as wily as they think they are.

Park shoots his twisted, feminist psychological thriller with an active eye. His camera doesn’t observe as much as it participates and reacts. It follows and pursues. It gives characters space when they need it and closes in for that close-up when they have nowhere to go. Simply watching a Park film is a joy unto itself. Here is a legit master of his medium who knows how to ensure his movie is as fun to watch as possible.

And perhaps that is the highest compliment you can pay The Handmaiden. It’s thoughtful and intense and perverted and sensual and funny and impeccably crafted, but it goes down so easy. Park Chan-wook has delivered another buffet of delights. Come hungry.

/Film Rating: 9.0 out of 10

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About the Author

Jacob Hall is the managing editor of /Film, with previous bylines all over the Internet. He lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, his pets, and his board game collection.