When certain directors release a new work, you sit up and pay attention. And when it's a director of the stature and artistic reputation of someone like South Korean director Chan-wook Park, you really should be running to the cinema as fast as you can. His masterpiece 'Oldboy' (2003) would be a good enough reason, but director Park has made his mark with a series of distinctive and extraordinary thrillers that combine an exquisite visual sense, rigorous character studies and explosive narratives that leave you shocked and exhilarated. His latest film 'The Handmaiden' is no exception. In fact, it might be his most delectable film yet.
Based on Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith’, now relocated from Victorian England to 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation, the film follows a young Korean girl Sook-Hee (Tae Ri Kim) hired as the handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), a Japanese heiress living with her mysterious book-collecting Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) in a secluded mountain estate. However, Sook-Hee has other motives: gathering information for a crook posing as the fake Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), who plans on seducing Lady Hideko and swindling her out of her inherited fortune. What Sook-Hee doesn’t anticipate though is the depth of her relationship with Lady Hideko, one that takes many very unexpected turn.
Executed with breathtaking sensory precision and exquisite control, ‘The Handmaiden’ is the most ornate of puzzle boxes, a film that takes great care and time in delivering its information but without waiting for the audience to catch up with it. Instead, it asks you to sit back and be caught up in its current, one full of endless twists and turns. Director Park and co-writer Seo-Kyung Chung take their time laying all the pieces on the chessboard, allowing for genuine character development and minute detail in performance and design. We are given information and development when the storytellers deem it necessary, like the stories in Kouzuki’s books, not when we desire it, and so the film drips with ambiguity and mystery. We get glimpses of hidden narrative paths and hidden character rooms, which only serves to draw you in even further. Watching ‘The Handmaiden’ is like watching someone put a puzzle together piece by piece, where we think we know what the full picture is but suddenly discover that the truth is far more complex and unexpected. The closest equivalent would be David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ in the way the film plays with perspective, perception and manipulation, but ‘The Handmaiden’ relies on a continual set of narrative jolts rather than one, and it's a credit to director Park that he’s able to tell such a complex story with so many moving pieces without ever making the many melodramatic or perverse elements feel disingenuous.
'THE HANDMAIDEN' TRAILER
That also applies to its technical craft, demonstrating a director at the height of their powers. Nothing is wasted or misused, and every element utilised to serve the storytelling. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung moves the camera through the visual space with a tremendous sense of poetry, but always undercutting it with a kineticism and immediacy that betrays a darker layer hidden underneath waiting to emerge. The production design from Seong-hie Ryu and costume design from Sang-gyeong Jo are absolutely breathtaking, revelling in the period textures and rapturous colours which the cinematography devours, and completing the sensory world of the film is the extraordinary score from Yeong-wook Jo, which manages to capture both the intoxicating romanticism of the story as well as its tremendous depravity. That’s the remarkable balance the film straddles, and as it unfolds we begin to see just how deep and delicious that depravity goes. It’s a credit to everyone involved that the film so assuredly leads us toward what we think is a period romantic drama before becoming something much darker, always with a gloriously wicked sense of humour.
While both Jung-woo Ha and Jin-woong Jo give terrific performances, the film belongs to its two female protagonists. Tae Ri Kim bursts onto the screen with magnetic and frantic energy, making sure that though Sook-Hee might be deceiving so many people around her, she crackles with a tremendous amount of innocence and honesty. This plays in perfect contrast to the cold, calculated control of Min-hee Kim as Lady Hideko, both the film’s most hypnotic character and performance. There’s so much depth and detail in her work, brimming with hidden secrets we cannot wait to see revealed, and what cements the success of the film is the electric chemistry between these two women. These are extraordinary performances, and even with the superb work behind the scenes, the film would simply not work without them.
I had high expectations for this film, and Chan-wook Park has not disappointed - ‘The Handmaiden’ is a breathtaking film, delicious and intoxicating, hilarious and disturbing, shocking and deeply romantic. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen once, and couldn’t help but gasp and giggle out loud as I followed this twisted little tale to its conclusion. It’s also a powerful piece of queer cinema, one that treats the central lesbian relationship with great respect and honesty, even amidst the melodrama surrounding it. Director Park continues to be one of the most exciting filmmakers in the world, and ‘The Handmaiden’ is without question one of the best films of this year so far. It’s a dessert so rich that eating it makes you giddy, one that charges all the senses and leaves you begging for more.