Movie Review: “The Handmaiden” is a film of sick, sensual delights, and one of the year’s best audience movies.
Fans of Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook might be a bit surprised at the director’s latest, a lavish, gorgeously bonkers period melodrama called “The Handmaiden”. For one thing, the film is uncommonly restrained — at least for Park. Whereas films like “Thirst,” his cult classic “Oldboy” and his English-language debut “Stoker” practically burst out of the gate with over-the-top creepiness and depraved set pieces, “The Handmaiden” takes its time building to a lurid, batshit-crazy climax that ranks as one of Park’s grandest achievements. This languor turns out to be intoxicating: while “The Handmaiden” is every bit as deliciously perverse as Park’s earlier work, it’s also a huge leap forward in terms of expanding the director’s singular artistic vision. Each frame is like an agonizingly gorgeous painted still frame come to horrifying life, and each performance is so beautifully rendered and realized that I have no other response than to throw up my hands in cinephiliac glee and exclaim “Mr. Park, you sick, magnificent bastard, you’ve done it!”
To be honest, I feel as though Park is a filmmaker whose wavelength I’ve never quite been on. I tried getting into “Joint Security Area,” his tense, gritty detective story set on the border between North and South Korea during a tumultuous political conflict. The film was well made but also blunt and heavy, often favoring sensation and overkill over thoughtful storytelling. “Oldboy” contains three or four all-time classic sequences (eating a live octopus, anyone?) and it remains one of the most bizarre revenge films of the last twenty years. “Stoker” and “Thirst” are hyper-formalist affairs that are manicured to the point of antiseptic tedium: each film is fastidiously designed, but often at the expense of its larger story.
With “The Handmaiden,” Park boldly charges through everything that was problematic or off-putting about his earlier work and gives us his magnum opus: brimming with confidence, his fetishes reigned in and reconfigured into a hypnotic new dimension. It was hard to imagine that Park, who so often blends gothic austerity with exuberant, thoroughly modern vulgarity, would one day make a period piece. Now that he’s made “The Handmaiden,” though, I almost don’t want him to do anything else.
The film is a kind of wild hybrid of a parlour room mystery, an erotic thriller, a lesbian love story and Park’s typical Grand Guginol theatrics. Throughout its hefty two and a half hour runtime, the film never once feels unwieldy or unsure of itself. Instead, Park remains firmly in control of his craft: composing shots that are visually delightful seemingly for the sake of it, before whipping us into a state of shock with a moment of horrible brutality that sucks the air from out of our lungs. In a cinematic landscape where so much sex and violence feels anemic and designed to sate the troubling appetites of fanboys (particularly on television), the depravity in “The Handmaiden” feels startlingly real. There are female lovemaking scenes in Park’s film that are as frank, messy and genuinely sexy as anything since David Lynch’s great “Mulholland Drive” (a film that “The Handmaiden” resembles in its examination of malleable identity and forbidden romance) and though the film is a mite less icky than Park’s earlier, more in-your-face work, when the blood starts flowing… well, I suppose curious minds should read on.
“The Handmaiden” unfolds in 1930’s Korea, which has been occupied by the imperial force of Japan. Those who have paid attention to the layers of political subtext that has always embedded in Park’s work will notice that he is careful to portray Korean’s relationship to Japan as definitively acquiescent, even if he’s wise not to labor over the nitty-gritty particulars (he’s not that kind of filmmaker). The Koreans of this time and place view their Japanese counterparts almost as members of a superior race: Japan is the master, while Korea is the “slow, soft and dull” servant, as one character notes. The dueling themes of dominance and submission are ultimately what tie the film’s sometimes-thorny structural elements together, though “The Handmaiden” is ultimately about much more than just this single subject.
Kim Tae-ri marvelously plays Sook-hee: a baby-faced pickpocket living a life of squalor until a smug, charming man who calls himself The Count (Ha Jung-Woo) presents her with a tempting offer. It goes like this: Sook-hee will pose as the maiden for the enigmatic Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an heiress who lives with an older man famous for painting forgeries. Once there, she’ll be expected to gain the fragile woman’s trust — as well as access to her most prized possessions and, more importantly, her privacy. As we come to learn, The Count has his own warped agenda: he’s an awful, cruel man who takes pleasure in mentally manipulating those he deems to be less worthy than him, and his practiced indifference only occasionally spills over into acts of literal transgression.
What the Count doesn’t know is that not only are both Sook-hee and Lady Hideko hip to his scheme, but they are also quickly falling into passionate, uncontrollable love with one another. It’s a tryst consecrated in deception and mental abuse, and one that will spill over into all-out lunacy in the film’s closing moments, which rank perhaps as the most satisfying stretch of Park’s filmography to date. To describe the particulars of the plot in any greater detail would be a crime, since so much of the pleasure of “The Handmaiden” unspools in the byzantine specifics of the story. This is a film that feels very much alive, even if its characters seem dead from the inside out. When the Count bites into a particularly ripe peach, you can practically feel the juices flying off the screen.
Of course, Park has not lost his gift for the show-stopping set piece. While he may never again reach the Olympian heights of “Oldboy’s” spectacular one-take hammer showdown, there are two sequences in “The Handmaiden” that make a case for Park as both one of modern cinema’s most innovative visual storytellers and also as a kink-minded heir apparent to the auteurs of dread like Roman Polanski and David Cronenberg. The first is an intensely graphic sex scene between Sook-hee and Lady Hideko; we see the same scene from a different perspective later in the film, thus having Park complete his unspoken promise to go all “Rashomon” on our asses in what turns out to be his most ambitious work. Bathed in silken moonlight and set to the rhythms of deep, heavy female breathing, the first sex scene in “The Handmaiden” accomplishes the confounding task of being both uncomfortably intimate and also weirdly grander and larger than the movie surrounding it. It’s further proof, if any was needed, that Park’s gift for the big moment is practically unrivaled by his Korean counterparts (with all apologies to Bong-Joon Ho, whose films I love quite a lot).
The second set piece is the real kicker. It’s a kind of bizarre, haunting kabuki show/erotica reading where Lady Hideko describes, in revolting, rapturous detail, the specifics of her sadomasochistic affair with the Count. The scene is truly shocking even before the Lady has begun to physically straddle a disturbingly lifeless anthropomorphic love doll onstage, and Park captures the expressions of the Lady’s monocle-sporting, cigarette-smoking spectators — some of them aroused, others bemused, others lost in a kind of malevolent trance — with his characteristically diabolical precision. The scene is hilarious, inexplicable, skin-crawling and majestic all at once — not unlike “The Handmaiden” itself.
Like Lynch and Polanski, Park is on a very short list of filmmakers whose work comes close to capturing the nightmarish majesty of the uncanny: when storytelling goes beyond dream logic and into more nebulous, abstract terrain. The closing moments of “The Handmaiden” almost feel like the closing of some kind of ethereal, ghostly fairy tale (Park still loves to shoot the moon, for reasons that we will probably never understand), though the open-endedness of the climax might irk less patient viewers. What’s almost remarkable about the consistency of Park’s formal control is the fact that he ultimately gets us to care very much about the plight of Sook-hee and Lady Hideko. The Count, meanwhile, is one of the year’s great villains, and without spoiling too much, let’s just say that those who delighted in the “ick” factor of “Oldboy’s” infamous live-squid scene will experience a small twinge of joyous nostalgia when they see what fate Park has reserved for his film’s most loathsome character.
“The Handmaiden” isn’t quite the best film of the year, but it might just be the most singular. Can you think of anything else in the current cinematic landscape that it even remotely resembles? Come to think of it, is anyone else out there making movies like this? In a year when so many people are pointing at television as being the new art house cinema, “The Handmaiden” makes a furiously compelling case to the contrary. This is a movie to see in a big theatre with your friends: to howl, scream, wince and laugh with in all its bugfuck madness. It is a film to be cherished: for the jaw-dropping gall of its ambition and for the what-the-fuck brazenness of its individuality. Call it disgusting, call it pretentious nonsense, call it surrealist hokum — the one thing you can’t do to “The Handmaiden” is dismiss it outright. Park wants to get in your face, and he does — in a bold, beautiful, nasty way. This is one of the year’s best pictures. Grade: A-