“The Handmaiden”, a Korean romance/drama/thriller and the latest movie from critically acclaimed director Park Chan-wook, is best viewed without any prior knowledge of the film. Unlike some other movies, “The Handmaiden” genuinely surprised me multiple times throughout its two-and-a-half-hour progression. Its twists are both unpredictable and wholly believable.
Much of Park Chan-wook’s previous work has received immaculate praise from his fans from but serious criticism from media outlets. One of the only things I knew about this film going in was that the opinions of the two had aligned; “The Handmaiden” was beloved both among the director’s cultish fan-base and outspoken critics. I feared that, perhaps, he had achieved this by rejecting the uniquely stylistic and somewhat alienating qualities of his previous films. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded: “The Handmaiden” is disturbing, outrageous and yet accessible all at once.
In 1930s Japan-occupied Korea, a makeshift gang of thieves is approached by a hustler, the fake Count Fujiwara, to join him on a con. The Count enlists Sook-hee, who plans to one day live a life of leisure, to disguise herself as a handmaiden and look after the niece of a rich estate. There, it is Sook-hee’s job to make sure the niece falls for the Count and abandons her soon-to-be-groom uncle, at which point the Count will proclaim her mad, have her locked up, and the poor girl’s inheritance will be split between the two thieves.
This ambiguity helps to humanize the film’s characters, despite their terrible penchant to betray and deceive one another. Often times the same character you despised a scene before will earn your sympathy, while a character you previously sympathized with might reveal themselves to be surprisingly unlikable; this gray morality helped keep me hooked throughout the film.
In some countries, the movie has earned a rating of Adults Only. That’s not to say “The Handmaiden” is too violent. Rather than driving the characters to violence for the sake of violence, it merely gives them more potential and makes the movie feel richer. If a character wants to curse, kill someone or build character in bed, they’re free to. When the movie handles sex, it looks at both sides of the coin: how it can bring joy or misery to those involved, and how different people might seek it in different forms.
The movie has been called the most erotic movie of the year by many entertainment sources, and they’re probably not wrong. There is a debate online regarding the purpose of these scenes, as their gratuitous nature seems to be coming more from a male fantasy and less from the sentiment of female liberation that resonates throughout the film.
Just like “Oldboy”, Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece of a revenge thriller, “The Handmaiden” plays out like an old myth. The movies contain stories of good vs evil, but it’s not as simple as heroes-kill-villains storytelling. Where “Oldboy” mirrors the Greek tragedy of Oedipus to tell the story of a vengeful man, “The Handmaiden” is an erotic tale of forbidden love. Characters like the crook, the uncle and the lady of the house feel realistic and larger than life at the same time. They’re entertaining to watch, but their stories might be told by wise men to their children in cautionary tales. The entire movie has a sense of love, wit and humor to it, giving it a breath of humanity that a less experienced and inventive director might’ve failed to pull off.
On a technical note, the movie is outstanding in practically every way. The sets and other shooting locations, camerawork and acting is top notch. The estate, a mix of English and Japanese designed wings, is both dreary and beautiful at the same time. The soundtrack sounds great and original when too many soundtracks nowadays focus only on building tension or fear.
It’s for all these reasons that I highly recommend you watch “The Handmaiden” and, by extension, the director’s previous “Oldboy”. Movies like these aren’t made often enough.