The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden ★★★★★

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Chan-wook Park has always been conscious of his own audience, he understands the expectations that would be brought into a film. It is with this intelligence that he plays upon them, challenges us in order to amplify the overall experience. Though I was personally unsatisfied by the results of his renowned opus, Oldboy, I was able to find myself gripped and toyed in one of his more later films, Stoker, and by this I mean it in a positive manner.

Rather than to return in American soil, he returns to his home in his latest feature, The Handmaiden, setting his story during the time of Japanese occupation. There is a greater level of comfortability in his craft here, as he worries little of expectations in attempting to appeal a foreign audience, the inclusion of Japanese dialogue and set design are merely decorations and details in realising his world, adding a touch or sterility that contrasts with his intentions of sensuality and emotion aggression.

This is a film that is best kept known to a minimum to those who have yet seen the film, as the beauty that seems to emerge from the director’s work lies in the shadowed corners that are eventually illuminated with shocking and thought-provoking results, he forces to reevaluate everything that was previously offered in order to gain a deeper or a more contradicting, but far more rewarding, experience. Though a trademark from Park, it is in his ability to swallow the audience deep within the perspective of a singular character, to simply see the circumstance a particular way, viewing what Park wants you to see, and his ability to wrap its audience in would make for a very convincing argument.

Initially, it is under The Handmaiden’s eyes that we follow in advancing the film’s story, it acts as the film’s emotional foundation of what would eventually become harvested later on as Park begins to augment our perceptions. There is a romantic element that motivates its titular character forward, which by the way is named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), becoming attached to the radiantly beautiful, Hideko (Min-hee Kim), who is a Japanese niece of a wealthy Korean man, Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), whom had abandoned his affection and ties with Korean culture and has married and assimilated himself into a wealthy Japanese family. Revolving around Sook-Hee’s attraction and fascination for Hideko had made for a seemingly dormant and far too uneventful storyline, as though scenes are filled with passion when required, it felt all too passive. As it carried forward, I was rearranging my mindset to be prepared for a more dramatically charged but domesticated film, only for Park to brilliantly smash these expectations and bring forth new light to the tale.

It was here that the film began to show its true colours, to demonstrate the absurdity that would continue to grow and carry forward in the scenes to come. There is a darker shade to the more innocent mould of the first act, as exposition hits with greater force and suspense becomes fabricated in order to linger beneath our souls. All bets were off and it simply didn’t care whether it made you feel discomforted or overbearingly swallowed, it brought greater nuance to the story, it justified many of its seemingly simple characters, and with it, that emotional and passionate flame that was found in the first act, still remains, burning brighter even, while retaining that cynical and torturous sensibility that Park is known for.

Visually attracted I certainly was, truly allowing the audience to see the beauty of its depicted relationships, emphasised through carefully composed close-ups, elevating the film’s intention of fabricating a specific perspective, and with this, compounds onto the alluring romanticism of its two key female characters, depicting their passion with such heat and force, uncompromisingly, it energises the film’s atmosphere, to both feed onto our superficial desires while also creating substance that would anchor the essence of these characters. Although I feel Stoker was the far more attractive film, The Handmaiden is no slouch in its cinematography and production design, it pulls you into the frame, putting you in a seductive trance, caring deeply for the presented characters and block our views of potential outcomes or pathways that may lie ahead, a remarkable feat no doubt.

Though I still am unfamiliar with a lot of Park’s works, I can confidently state that The Handmaiden is one of his best films, his greatest even. It lays the groundwork and slowly shapes our expectations, only to have pulled from beneath us, and yet it still keeps us standing on edge rather than tumble, maintaining a substantial amount of tension and suspense, whilst also justifying itself with passionately fuelled characters that establishes our deepened connection with them. Along with Paterson, The Handmaiden is this year’s best film.

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