The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Not surprising a provocateur like Park Chan-wook would choose to take on as twisted and explicit a romance as The Handmaiden; what is shocking is how well Park balances the more buttoned-up aspects of the tale with its fearless, no-holds-bared eroticism, how he creates an atmosphere both rigidly formal and wildly unhinged, often within the same scene. The Handmaiden comes across as an exercise in juxtaposition: opulence and beauty against the creepy patriarchal luridness supporting this lavishness, male gaze against male shortsightedness, sexual exploitation against sexual liberation. Park enjoys pitting our own expectations against us, transforming what's essentially a period heist flick into something grander, more sensual, more cathartic, a film where the twists and turns manipulate our assumptions of malice, obscuring whether things are not as dark or infinitely darker than they seem. (It's a Park Chan-wook movie, so you can reasonably guess which of the two tends to be more true.)

Yet there's an undercurrent of old-school romanticism at play here; despite the serpentine power struggles and sinister sexuality providing all the lurid sensationalism, Park establishes a quaint, admirable sincerity at the core of The Handmaiden. (Hard not to see the "It's Sade-esque" line as a meta comment on both the film's explicitness and its unexpected optimism.) "Love conquers all" is a theme I wouldn't predict in a billion years from Park, which might be why the final scene feels like the biggest shock of all, when he allows Hideko and Sook-hee to sail away together, free of their tormentors, jinglin' the night away. Granted, he doesn't permit this happy ending without adding in some of his trademarked vindictive bloodletting—plus an appearance by what might be the most perversely lecherous octopus in cinema history—but still, The Handmaiden might be his most approachable film, as long as you're not screening it for, say, a post-Thanksgiving family movie night.

Of course, touting a film as the most approachable work of Park Chan-wook is like praising a hobo spider for being the least poisonous of the world's ten deadliest arachnids. His style of storytelling stings, and there will always be pushback—like from my wife, for instance, who left the room in disgust shortly after Lady Hideko's puppet-mounting sequence. And her dislike is understandable; she felt intensely put off from a male-directed film about women being confined, dominated, and degraded by men, a setup which begs the question how much of Park is reflected in Uncle Kozuki's line, "I'm just an old man that loves dirty stories."

Yet The Handmaiden becomes so much more than its titillation; the film possesses moments of remarkable beauty and depth: Hideko and Soo-kee's escape from Kozuki's manor, accented by Jo Yeong-wook's exhilarating score, is utterly breathtaking, and the scene of the screens opening behind Hideko during her smut recitation represents Park at his most darkly whimsical. Park may be an odd choice for a tale of female emancipation, and he may not be able to fully separate himself from his more grotesque tendencies, but The Handmaiden shows him capable of capturing both dread and passion without needing the two to exclusively wrap around each other. It's a welcome turning point for a guy who’s carved a peculiar—if fascinating—niche in modern cinema.

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