The Handmaiden Review

“The Handmaiden” is the new film directed by Park Chan-Wook of “Oldboy” and “Stoker,” and here he gives us another fascinating look at sexual intrigue inside a crime drama.  Unlike “Oldboy” or even “Stoker” for that matter, “The Handmaiden” has a very unique way of telling its story in a very Quentin Tarantino-esque style as it’s told in 3 parts.  The less you know about the story, the better because this film is meant to unfold its secret twists and turns for the shocking reveals.  So all I will say is this: the story concerns a young girl who is sent to be the handmaiden of a wealthy upper class lady, and there is a crime-caper element to the plot and the characters are not all what they are made out to be.  If that is pretty vague, it should be because giving away more plot points will spoil this phenomenal story.

What I really like about Park Chan-Wook’s films is that they are bold.  He is never afraid to shy away from very taboo subjects like violence, sex, incest, and other fancies that can make a lot of audiences feel uncomfortable.  He takes risks with his projects and I applaud him for that.  I was a huge fan of “Oldboy” and I liked the themes in “Stoker,” but “Stoker” for me missed the mark because of the actual story.  But “The Handmaiden” I absolutely loved and it’s my favorite film that he has done so far.  The screenplay is really a huge credit here written by Wook himself, based off of a British novel titled “Fingersmith,” but with a Japenese/Korean period piece type twist.  This film blew my mind with its storytelling and the 3 part narrative structure.  There was a clear beginning, middle and end and each part sucks you right in, with the story and the colorful characters.

One of the really neat things that this film does is it has two different types of subtitles.  Orange subtitles are for characters who speak in Japanese, while the white are for characters that speak Korean.  I’ve never seen this done in a film before and it was a creative choice that actually adds to the narrative structure.  The actors were fantastic, especially Lady Hideko played by Min-hee Kim and Sook-Hee played by Tae-ri Kim.  These two ladies were stunning and they made their characters completely believable.  The cinematography was breathtaking and the vibrant colors made the production design gorgeous to look at.  A big part of this film deals with sex, and the sex in this movie is sometimes very gratuitous but it’s not there just to be there.  The sex serves a very important part of the story and was very much needed.  Without giving anything away, this piece felt very feminist to me and when you watch it you will understand.  But I will also say that there are some uncomfortable moments in here so if you shy away from sex scenes in films this may not be the movie for you.  Now the sex isn’t as pornographic as John Woo’s “Lust Caution” but still there are a lot of skin on skin moments in here, again that serve the story in a very meaningful way.

As far as flaws go, I thought very hard about the issues with the film.  I still cannot think of any.  The running time was two and a half hours, but the movie blows by it’s so intriguing.  I will say that there are a lot of adult themes in here, so I wouldn’t recommend this for kids or even a lot of teenagers for that matter.  This is very much an adult oriented film and sometimes the themes can be very uncomfortable but that’s what makes foreign films so intriguing to me; how lines and bounds are crossed that American directors shy away from.  International cinema relies a lot more on narrative and storytelling elements rather than giant explosions and CGI.

“The Handmaiden” is one of the best films that I’ve seen this year.  This one will definitely stick with you for days to come and it has so many things going for it: the plot, the intrigue, the sex, the violence, and the quirky narrative structure.  It’s hard to turn away from “The Handmaiden” for a lot of different reasons.  This is cinema at its finest and it reminds me why films are so important not just on an entertainment level but on an artistic level.  Park Chan-Wook is a masterful storyteller and here he has given us his masterpiece.

Grade: A+ 

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