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Review: The Handmaiden (2016)

The Handmaiden (2016)

Directed by: Chan-wook Park

Premise: During the Japanese occupation of Korea, a small time thief (Tae-ri Kim) is hired to be the handmaiden of a wealthy but disturbed woman (Min-hee Kim). The handmaiden cooperates with a con artist (Jung-woo Jo) to manipulate the lady into marrying him.

What Works: The premise of The Handmaiden could easily become sentimental mush but under the direction of filmmaker Chan-wook Park, this is a compelling erotic drama. Chan-wook’s previous films include the original Oldboy as well as a segment of Three. . . Extremes and 2013’s Stoker. The filmmaker is unafraid of venturing into taboo subject matter and exploring the darker parts of the human psyche but Chan-wook isn’t a cynical filmmaker either and he offers full-fledged characters. That is certainly the case in The Handmaiden, which features a cast of complex characters in a story that is told in an unusual way. The Handmaiden is divided into three segments. The first portion is told from the point of view of Sook-Hee, a petty criminal who becomes the handmaiden to the wealthy but mentally fragile Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Sook-Hee is in on the plot of a con-artist (Jung-woo Ha) who intends to seduce and marry this woman, take her money, and then have her institutionalized. But the titular handmaiden eventually falls for Lady Hideko and the three are stuck in an apparent love triangle. The second part of The Handmaiden tells the backstory of Lady Hideko and her Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) and we discover that this lady and the plot to deceive her are not quite what they appeared to be. The third part of The Handmaiden finally resolves the conflicts. The structure of the movie expertly manipulates our emotions and expectations. The shifting points of view confer different meanings onto repeated sequences and the structure allows for some interesting and multi-dimensional performances. Most impressive is Min-hee Kim as Lady Hideko. The way her character is revealed over the course of the film is very sly and Min-hee inserts subtle details into different versions of the same events to create new impressions. Tae-ri Kim is also quite good as Sook-Hee, the handmaiden. She is the emotional center of the movie and it’s through Tae-ri’s performance that the audience enters this story. The Handmaiden also includes a strong supporting performance by Jin-woong Jo as Uncle Kouzuki. The old man is first presented as a neurotic bookworm but we gradually discover he’s a much more lascivious figure. In addition to its great characters and complex story, The Handmaiden is also one of the most erotic films of recent memory. The sexuality is explicit but the erotic scenes also confer a lot about the characters and advance the plot and themes of the story while affirming carnal pleasure.

What Doesn’t: The movies of director Chan-wook Park are not for everybody. Due to the sexual nature of this film, The Handmaiden isn’t necessarily going to appeal to a mass audience. The Handmaiden does run a bit long, particularly in its third section. The ending is unnecessarily protracted and it wraps up the characters stories a little too neatly given the tone of the rest of the movie. The fragmented style of the story offers the filmmakers opportunities to surprise the audience but there is a legitimate criticism of this narrative structure. At some level, the filmmakers are withholding information from us and then retroactively revising what we understood about the characters and about the scene. There is a school of thought about storytelling that would criticize this technique as a cheat. But within the context of this movie, the filmmakers present the new information in a way that feels organic as the movie deliberately shifts its point of view.

DVD extras: None.

Bottom Line: The Handmaiden is smart and sexy but also emotionally compelling in the way a good drama should be. Like Chan-wook Park’s other work, The Handmaiden might not be for everybody but it is a very good film.

Episode: #641 (April 2, 2017)