OnScreen Review: 'The Handmaiden'

OnScreen Review: 'The Handmaiden'

Ken Jones

OnScreen Chief Film Critic

The end of the year can be a stressful time for films, because so many prestige pictures are released for awards season.  It usually results in a mad dash to see as many films as you can so you can make your year-end list.  Unless you do this professionally (I don’t), you’re bound to have a handful fall through the cracks, even in the best of years.  I had perhaps my best bit of luck with the 2016 releases, as I got to see nearly everything I wanted to see in time without having to wait for limited releases to expand later on in January.  There was one film that was a big regret of mine: Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden.  It was a film I had heard very high praise and it even had a short run at a local movie theater that doesn’t typically play prestige foreign films.  Unfortunately, I could not find the time to make it to the theater to see it.  I was overjoyed to find out via Twitter that it was available to stream on Amazon Prime on March 12th and watched it that night. 

Typically, I spend a paragraph of my reviews giving a basic layout of the plot.  I am loath to get into too much detail here, because the less you know about this film going into it, the better.  The film is a thriller, adapted from The Fingersmith, a novel set in Victorian England, which is swapped out her for 1930s Korea.  A young Korean woman named Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) goes to work as a handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), a Japanese heiress, who lives under the authoritarian eye of her uncle, Louzuki (Jin-woong Jo).  While this is happening, Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) is attempting to woo Hideko and her inheritance out from under the thumb of her uncle, who spends most of his time devoted to his expensive book collection.

The plot is a carefully crafted puzzle box that is expertly handled by Park, who also worked on the screenplay.  Without going into too much detail, almost all of the four main characters are not who they appear to be at first blush.  There is more to all four of them than Park initially reveals.  There are love triangles, deceptions, betrayals, and Chekov’s Gun devices littered throughout this film.  Park initially withholds some key details and the eventual reveal of them brings new understanding to previous scenes.  Though it’s a different device, it reminded me of the unique structure of Arrival and highlighted how important story structure is and how any detail out of place can undermine a film like this. 

There are several words to describe this film; sumptuous, indulgent, explicit, and Hitchcockian among them.  Park is a director who I have long admired, being a fan of his Vengeance Trilogy.  He has unique sensibilities; often blending the sublime and the grotesque in a style all his own.  At times, it almost seems like he loves slipping lurid moments and disturbing images in just to dare the viewer to not look away.  Park drops hints early on that there are darker, more disturbing things going on than he is showing, and like so many other twists and turns of the film, the true nature of it all is laid bare at the end. 

Speaking of things being laid bare (he wrote in the most strained of transitions), there is a lot of sexual content in this film.  Normally it’s not something I would make a point of highlighting, but it cannot be overstated how explicit some of the scenes are.  This is a film that I would recommend to anyone based on the strength of its story, but the level of strong sexual content may be too much for some people.  I’d put this slightly below Blue Is the Warmest Color in that area as a critically regarded film that features so much content that could deter some people from seeing it.  Steve McQueen’s Shame is perhaps another one in that category.

Strangely, The Handmaiden disappeared from Amazon Prime shortly after I saw it.  I did not see a reason why, but it was announced recently that it will be available once again on April 13th.  In light of having finally seen it, it definitely would have made my list for the best films of 2016.  Park is a director worthy of being considered an auteur.  If you can stomach subtitles (which, come on) and the explicit content, The Handmaiden is a delightful clever puzzle of a film that you should find time for.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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