The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden ★★★★

Holy crap.

That’s the only thing I was able to say after leaving the theater. And I wasn’t alone—nobody in the packed house really knew what to say or do after the screen went to black. People were actually tripping over one another, some staying after the credits ended, some running for the door. Everyone, however, was in a strangely perplexed state.

The weird thing is that The Handmaiden isn’t all that bizarre—from a plot point of view, it’s convoluted but still relatively normal—however, something about the presentation of the film just left everyone lost.

Maybe this reaction stems from the writing, which was consistently solid throughout the entire two hour, 24 minute runtime; every line is incredibly specific, often used to tie together key parts of the film (which, I must admit, became a little tiresome at a point) and hint towards what’s to come. It all feels incredibly natural, but due to how structured it is, there’s something offputting about it. I say that in a positive way, because it creates a slight discomfort whenever someone speaks. Despite how obvious it is that major plot points are set up through seemingly meandering dialogue, I only once ever thought “hey, this seems to be leading to something.” The lines are just elegantly and brilliantly written.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the other components of the script (e.g. locations) created that post-Handmaiden feeling, however.

Predominantly, the film takes place in a gorgeous Japanese mansion. No matter how large it is on the outside, though, it immediately shrinks when we step inside. Furniture, often bookshelves, cause even the largest of rooms to become compact, maze-like prisons—there were even obstructions in walkways. Why is this so disorienting that it could cause an entire theater to act like they're on drugs? I think it’s because of Park Chan-wook. The restriction of these sets never makes its way into the foreground of the viewer’s mind, instead being presented in a naturalistic and subtle way: the lenses are often quite wide with a somewhat deep depth of field, so nothing looks very out of the ordinary. Everything simply feels a little strange, and while watching, it’s hard to figure out why.

That very well could be the root cause of the confusion: there’s so much going on that it’s hard to pick up on everything. Your eye is constantly moving, your mind constantly wondering. There’s no time to stare at a frame and truly understand it. When the movie finally ends (with a very relaxing and straightforward scene), it’s as if you’re taking your first breath in over 120 minutes.

The Handmaiden is tremendous. Everything about it works on so many levels, but it never tops its first part (the film is divided into three). The following two are great, don’t get me wrong, but the first one is perfect. The sex scenes are by far the strongest and most purposeful, the acting is unbelievable, and the writing does not waste a minute. The photography shines most in this section, working hand-in-hand with Chan-wook’s prophetic blocking, and is certainly at its most unique. As I said, it’s all just perfect.

No matter what insignificant problems I had with some aspects of The Handmaiden, I can’t recommend it enough. The way I felt when I left the theater blew me away, and I want as many people as possible to have the same experience.

My one piece of advice: go into the movie completely blind. I hadn’t seen a single trailer or read a single spoiler, and I’m so glad that’s the case. Every single little twist was brand new for me, which was just amazing.

If you’ve seen it, comment below or DM me on Twitter, because I really really really want to talk about the movie with someone.

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