The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden ★★★★½

South Korean master Park Chan-wook—director known for his masterful, thrilling genre films such as Oldboy and Stoker—returns in top form with this bold, luridly stimulating psychosexual period thriller in The Handmaiden. Sex, romance, and deception are all enshrouded in this intricate, kinky mystery box which marks an unusually intricate, severely twisted, satisfying storytelling by Park. Adapted from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Park incorporates Waters’ verbiage into his own world setting the Victorian era of the novel to a Japanese-occupied Korea. This gives Park a freedom to not only put his own unique spin to Waters’ work, but also fuse it with such colorful Korean sensibilities which makes The Handmaiden, an alienating if not enthralling piece of work.

There is truly more than meets the eye in this story. A poor, orphaned pickpocket gets recruited by a con-man to help him seduce a wealthy Japanese heiress in exchange for her inheritance. But there’s more to the mystery I’ve said which I don’t plan to reveal. There’s more cruelty, nastiness, and cleverness that one would imagine. But I must say, my high expectations were truly leveled if not surpassed it. If Park tones the excessive violence down in this film (notorious in a lot of his work), the director pushes the button with his excessive display of sex, nudity and ‘male gaze’. Not only that, the director’s signature style of black comedy is even nudged a bit making some situations in the film cartoonish in a way that it is amusing. The male gaze however will strike some controversy in the future, but in this story, I felt that it’s merited. The Handmaiden revels in its hypocrisy, and self-made fantasy—in short, it’s not to be taken seriously which corresponds then to the problematic scenario of let’s say Abdelatiff Kechiche’s excessive, unnecessary display of sex and other forms in Blue is the Warmest Color which I think is more rooted to realism.

Handmaiden is also exquisitely shot. The camera operates fluidly pulsating energy from its dazzling production design, costumes, lighting to its visual and sound effects. The technical side is phenomenal as ever which is another testament to how Park is given the full control in his entire film. The acting is pitch-perfect spearheaded by two beautifully fearless performances by Kim Min-hee and newcomer Kim Tae-ri. Min-hee is sophisticated and alluring in her frosty performance. Her blankness makes her repressive struggle even more liberating and intriguing amidst the unjust cruelty and trauma her character endured. While Tae-ri is earthier, and approachable in terms of emotional transparency. Tae-ri’s still developing acting presence works well here making her character fully blossomed in an organic way. The male characters of the story are still significant part in this but their perspectives are moved to the periphery of Park’s focus on the female experience. Actors Ha Jung-woo and Cho Jin-woong are both great and committed as well to the playfulness and craziness of the director’s vision.

In the end, I was struck by the bold conviction, and ingenuity that Park brought in this film. From every single angle, The Handmaiden is a unique force to be reckoned with. It’s twisted as fuck, nasty, cruel, tantalizing but ultimately, it’s a psychologically stimulating piece of cinema that deserves to be experienced. It doesn’t only make your brain work, but at the same time, makes you fully entertained with its sadistic viciousness.

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