The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden ★★★★★

The snake marks the bounds of knowledge.

It's always nerve-wracking to return to a film that you loved so much the first time around, especially one which is so heavily reliant on its narrative revelations. Some movies have failed to live up to my impressions at first blush. Others - like Gone Girl - only age like a fine wine. They, instead, truly blossom in the little details, the foreshadowing, the sly quips and light-handed symbolism (light-handed, is that a thing? yeah, I guess we'll go with that). These films are not only infinitely re-watchable, they almost necessitate repeat viewings.

Given that The Handmaiden was my second favorite film of last year, and, currently, one of my favorite films of all time, I was naturally apprehensive to return to it. But, damn, were those fears unfounded. The Handmaiden is as delightfully subversive, sexy, and brilliant the second time around. Beyond the simple fact that the film is impeccably written - as discussed previously - and paced to absolute perfection (seriously, check the time progress bar as each act passes; it's almost obsessive-compulsive how meticulously this thing is paced), the film also speaks volumes without actually speaking a word. So much of the subtleties in the labyrinthine twists and turns of the narrative are revealed through glances; whether it is a widening of the eyes in emphasis or slight tightening of the eyelids in pleasure, Tae-ri and Min-hee in particular communicate reams without ever opening their mouths. It's truly impressive work.

Chan-wook's camera also does a lot of the heavy-lifting. Scenes are framed to such immaculate proportions that it is utterly inexorable from frame one that the story is going to go exactly as Chan-wook pleases and, more importantly, as quickly as he pleases. Yet, despite this meticulous control, the film never feels suffocated as a result. Every twist and turn lands precisely as it should; and even on the second go around I found myself smiling like a madman as Chan-wook suddenly whipped the characters around the next bend. It also struck me this time around how refreshing it is to see a movie that - despite on the surface being about the sexualization of its principle characters - places all of the agency of the plot squarely within the hands of its two leads.

Recently, when I ranked my top 100 favorite films I placed this at 19 and I immediately began to doubt myself. "Was it really that good?" I thought.

Yes. Yes it absolutely is.

Still a 5/5. And, honestly, if I could, I'd give it a 6/5.

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