𝕎𝕚𝕝𝕝𝕖𝕞 (𝕃𝕖𝕠) 𝕧𝕒𝕟 𝕕𝕖𝕣 ℤ𝕒𝕟𝕕𝕖𝕟’s review published on Letterboxd:
With the past two Chan-Wook Park films that I watched I had some serious reservations. When I first saw Oldboy I felt a little betrayed by how basic its plot was and how much the feeling of the story was made up from such intense stylization. Since then I started to appreciate style working in favor of a films story a lot more. By the time I watched Stoker I almost fully embraced this hyperactive way in which Park shows his world and I totally understood the choices he made within the film. The technical aspect, the cinematography, the editing and the almost one-dimensional characters actually helped drive the point home. With The Handmaiden we get once again a horse from a different colour and in my eyes it's only more of an improvement.
Park has toned down his hyperactive nature quite a bit, yet the stylization is still clearly visible. It just happens in different ways. The story itself, although as jumbled as it can get, feels a lot more realistic through the way it is told (and yes, that includes a plottwist here and there). The characters are grounded in reality with backstories that reach far and wide yet don't turn into endless exposition. If anything it's the most beautiful kind of exposition, the one you need to hear over and over till it finally sinks in that what you've just heard is utterly insane.
The acting is utterly beautiful on its own. Although the plot forces the characters to develop faster than one would necessarily want to, these forceful relationships between them, make the actors develop longwinded feelings in mere minutes of screen time and it pays off big time! Tension is a keyword here as it rises and keeps on rising even if you don't notice it right away. Scenes build up faster than you can spell out our dear director's name and it's only for the better as we get swiftly rushed through years of plot and unforgettable happenings. Yet when the story takes a little rest and we get to the more tender scenes that we've all heard about (let's be honest...), it takes some serious time to show you just how important, well-directed and plain beautiful the bonds between these actors and, with that, their characters are.
And as if that's not enough for you yet we also have a set design that rivals the most glorious of period drama's with a gorgeous mix of both Japanese and English architecture in both housing and gardening. We get a lush score that tingles at the right moments yet stays hauntingly silent when needed. The cinematography, although not as apparent as in Stoker or Oldboy still functions very well and is almost as precise as its editing, an aspect that never seems to falter within a Chan-Wook Park film.
I think there has never been a film as delicately erotic as The Handmaiden that made me tingle as much as I did while watching this. There might not be any grand lessons to be taken from this (except for the undying power of love perhaps) but the mere fact that you can watch a film that feels so freewheeling yet is made to the utmost precision in almost every part of its being, that is truly something to behold. You sure can count on South-Korea to show you what erotica can do to you...