The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden ★★★★

2016 Ranked

Woof. The Handmaiden is one perverse piece of eroticism. An erotic thriller that shows mastery of suspense akin to Alfred Hitchcock, but with a blending of eroticism akin to Brian De Palma, Paul Verhoeven, or Adrian Lyne, The Handmaiden is a brutally violent and erotic film. Blending eroticism with extreme violence like that found in films such as Basic Instinct, The Handmaiden is a lovingly crafted film that is equal parts horrifying and titillating throughout its run time. Though it suffers from Park Chan-wook's films always feeling too distant and disconnected (personal opinion), The Handmaiden's stark beauty is impossible to deny and this is what lifts it above his other films for me. That said, the plot's suspense and thrills are secondary to the visual beauty of this film, which is striking.

Changing the novel's location from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese rule, Park Chan-wook's film still feels Victorian. With the regality and the building design often reflecting the castles and mansions one could find in Victorian England, The Handmaiden still shows that influence. Yet, of course, these buildings are entirely Japanese/Korean. The interior design reflects this in the home of Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), as it is entirely Japanese and feels like something one could find in a film by Akira Kurosawa. Lavish, regal, and alive in its own rights, these buildings are intricate, detailed, and absolutely lovely. The interior and the exterior are gorgeous with the camera finding just the right ways to capture this beauty. Often shooting from behind the trees, the home is usually somewhat obscured in the darkness, instilling an ominous feeling about this place. The trees add to the distance communicated by the entire film, as Park Chan-wook never fully let's you in and keeps you an arm's length away from the proceedings. This is captured in the cinematography, but even then, the visuals are strikingly gorgeous.

This production design is further felt by the aforementioned cinematography that takes full advantage of the beauty on display. Every shot is gorgeous and lovingly crafted. Not a single frame of this film feels out of place and really flows together and is entirely engrossing. This is a dark, disturbing film, but the visuals communicate an odd beauty and romance to this violence and disturbing level of sexuality. Of course, it is benefited by the framing and staging. Every moment is precise, definitive, and decisive. Not a foot is put wrong in this film where each actor communicating their character brilliantly and breathing life into the film with every step they take. It is the movement of the characters that makes this a full-fledged visual masterpiece as it manages to add yet another layer to visual approach of this film. Beyond the production design, staging, and cinematography, the costume design is also brilliant with each design representing the lavish and royal lifestyle of its characters. The design's are intricate, well put together, and lovely to look at throughout the film.

Though an erotic psychological thriller with a penchant for violence and disturbing moments, The Handmaiden is also darkly comedic. For instance, one such comedy scene finds Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) holding up Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to prevent her from hanging herself. Upon learning distressing news, she runs off to cry only to quickly realize she has left her Ladyship strangling herself from the branch. Additionally, the multiple depictions of tentacles and the octopus in the basement are hysterical tongue-in-cheek additions by Park. And of course, the scene where Hideko has intercourse - supposedly - with a knife. Really off-the-wall, uncensored, and truly outrageous moments that add some darkly comic twists to a film that is dark, dark, dark.

Sexually, The Handmaiden is very much like a Verhoeven film. Though more pristine and less gritty, the scenes are shot to titillate. Park Chan-wook exploits his seemingly lesbian characters for the enjoyment of male viewers with classic lesbian sex scenes occurring that, regardless of their practicality, exist solely to entertain the male audience. This is very much like what people like De Palma or Verhoeven would include in their film, though it would be shot differently. Park Chan-wook's stages these sex scenes almost symmetrically at times and very rigidly. The scenes are tense, sensual, and almost regal is how they appear and look. It feels more like a Todd Haynes sex scene from Carol in this regard, as it feels pristine. Now, of course, Haynes' lesbian sex moment is far more withdrawn and focused on the passion and love. It is intimate, not exploitative. The Handmaiden exploits its characters' sexuality for the purposes of male entertainment, which is a shame.

Though flawed and distant, The Handmaiden is the only film from Park Chan-wook that I can certainly say I liked without reservation. Stoker was pretty good, though not one I adored. Oldboy is an okay film, but simply not my style. The Handmaiden, however, is an often terrific film with great visuals and shocking sexuality unseen in Western cinema. That said, it does further solidify that Park Chan-wook is simply not my cup of tea compared to how others react to his films. They are fine, but nothing revolutionary.

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