The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden ★★★★½

A masterwork of precision craftsmanship, The Handmaiden is an exquisite blend of high-quality direction, clever writing, sumptuous production design, impeccable camerawork, tight editing & mesmerising score that finds the revered filmmaker in sublime form, and is all the more uplifted by his sweeping cinematic vision to cement its spot amongst the finest films of 2016.

Set in Japanese-occupied Korea, the story follows a pickpocket who's hired by a conman to assist him in seducing a Japanese heiress who lives a secluded life in a countryside mansion with her uncle in order to steal her inheritance but finds herself attracted to her beauty & innocence and, after an unexpected encounter, starts having second thoughts about going with the original plan.

Co-written, co-produced & directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Joint Security Area & Stoker), this sexually-charged erotic thriller finds the esteemed filmmaker returning to his roots after his stint at Hollywood and makes splendid use of all his trademarks, including his own touch of dark comedy, bizarre elements & graphic violence. And it's possibly the most refined & beautiful film has has made to date.

The ornamental set pieces & lush locations provide its tale a rich setting that's as steeped in mystery as it is in beauty and is further enhanced by its arresting cinematography which makes excellent use of fluid camera movements, fitting colour tones & perfect lighting to radiate a sense of warmth & an undercurrent of ambiguity. The narrative employs a three-part structure and is tightly edited while the evocative score adds flavours of its own into the final print.

Coming to the performances, The Handmaiden features an interesting cast in Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo & Cho Jin-woong, with the two ladies impressing the most. While Min-hee illustrates the fragility & mysteriousness of the heiress with finesse, Tae-ri does a fabulous job at expressing the maidservant's shifting allegiance and the sexual tension between the two is the core ingredient that drives this film and Chan-wook captures it with genuine intimacy & tenderness.

On an overall scale, The Handmaiden finds its visionary filmmaker in complete control of his craft and is an erotic thriller for the ages. As accomplished in technical scale as it is proficient in the storytelling department, the film balances all aspects with remarkable flair and makes them work in near-perfect harmony from start to finish. All in all, The Handmaiden is another dark, twisted & deliciously offering from an assured artist and is possibly his finest directorial effort since Oldboy. Strongly recommended.

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