I think it’s fair to say that Park Chan-wook is the most famous Korean director, at least in America (although Shin Sang-ok might give him a run for his money, albeit for reasons mostly unrelated to his actual movies). When people in America think of Korean movies, they almost inevitably think of Oldboy, possibly followed by The Host or Into the Mirror on the outside. As the director of Oldboy (and its spiritual sequel, Lady Vengeance which is supposedly still getting a remake, and spiritual prequel Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), Park Chan-wook winds up being the most famous, almost by default.
It’s therefore fortunate that he’s also one of the most talented. Oldboy and Lady Vengeance are rightly regarded as classics, and his English language debut Stoker placed high on my favorite films of 2013. Hence I spent most of the year being excited about The Handmaiden. 2016’s movie season has been so meh, we could use the injection of brains and talents that come with a Park Chan-wook film.
Based on the book Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is about Sook-Hee (Kim Tar-ri) a woman living Japan occupied Korea, who gets a job working as a…well a handmaiden, for a rich but mysterious heiress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Hideko is quite odd and seems to be extremely isolated, but stands to inherit a huge fortune that’s being sought by her uncle Kozuki (Cho Jin-woong), an even more mysterious man, with an odd book collection.
Now forget most of that, because Sook-hee is actually a pickpocket, working for a conman who calls himself Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo), who intends to elope with Hideko to Japan, take her inheritance and lock her in a mental institution. Sook-hee is assigned to be his woman on the inside, to help him seduce Hideko. But things begin going off the rails a tiny bit, because instead of caused Hideko to fall in love with Fujiwara, she begins falling in love with Hideko herself.
The Handmaiden is one of those films that’s really, truly excellent, but I’m having trouble articulating why, so I’m just going to stream of consciousness this one and see if I can explain it. Park Chan-wook’s direction and blocking seem to be a big reason why the movie is great, it looks fantastic. The film manages to communicate so much depth without a word of dialogue, just in how a scene is laid out and shown to the audience. This goes double when the film hits the second half and we begin seeing parts of the story…you know what, I shouldn’t spoil that, should I?
The plot is also intricate and engaging, with a couple of fairly major twists in the 2nd and 3rd acts, that alter how you see the preceding movie and add new dimensions to the characters. The script does an incredibly solid job handling those elements, juggling three different characters with three (mostly) separate motivations, especially once the first twist hits and your entire understanding of the story shifts. There’s a lot of quiet and fast character work being done in the small moments, between the scenes that move the story forward.
Of course a fair amount of the credit for that has to be given to the actresses. Kim Tae-ri has the hardest role, tasked with selling the pickpocket Sook-hee, the woman Sook-hee is pretending to be and making sure the audience can see where the line between them is, as well as showing when that line begins to blur. Kim Min-hee gives a strange and distant performance, that we get to watch slowly grow closer from scene to scene. Both of them have fantastic chemistry, and getting to watch them is honestly one of the best romance stories I’ve seen in years. Surprisingly good is Ha Jung-woo, the script expanding on what was a minor character in the book, into a fully fledged person and giving him a ton to do. And while he doesn’t do much, Cho Jin-woong cuts an intimidating figure without much dialogue.
And there’s the matter of the…well the sex scenes. For some reason (I know the reason), whenever a straight man directs a romance movie about lesbians, they feel the need to insert lengthy and fairly explicit sex scenes into the proceedings (Room in Rome, Blue is the Warmest Color). Honestly, while I still feel like those kinds of scenes are a tiny bit exploitative, at least here they go by a little faster than some others, and they’re kind of thematically relevant. I can’t explain why without spoiling, but they are, just trust me.
All of this comes together with gorgeous cinematography and a fantastic soundtrack to make one of the best films of the year. There are other things I wish I could talk about, such as some of the better plot turns or the ways it differs from the book, but I can’t, at least without spoiling. I don’t know if it beats out The Lobster, simply because The Lobster has the benefit of being so goddamned weird. But if you’re more in the mood for a romance, a drama or a history movie, then you genuinely can’t do much better than The Handmaiden.
Elessar is 26 year old Alaskan born cinephile, and he did actually see the Oldboy remake. It’s one of the worst things Spike Lee has made, and that’s a crowded category.
– fantastic cinematography and directing
– great acting and writing
– beautiful soundtrack and period setting
– I guess it’s a tiny bit slow paced?
– maybe a little overlong?