Rather ashamedly, ‘The Handmaiden’ marks my first foray into the world of Park Chan-wook so I have little to compare with his other directorial offerings, but somewhat conveniently, ‘The Handmaiden’ is a film like no other, one so dazzlingly unique that it seems unfair to compare it to anything else in existence anyway!
The sweeping scale of the storyline and the precise way in which it peels back layer after layer, really is something which has to be seen to be appreciated, and I would never want to do it a disservice by spoiling the entire plot so I will do my best to keep this as spoiler free as possible.
The story follows a young Korean woman, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) who finds herself in the service of Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) as her titular Handmaiden. All is not as it seems however as she has in fact been planted by “Count Fujiwara” (Jung-woo Ha) who isn’t a Count at all, but rather a scoundrel who plans to seduce Lady Hideko, send her off to a madhouse, and split the money from her considerable estate with Sook-Hee. However, Sook-Hee soon finds herself infatuated with Lady Hideko and a passionate affair ensues, but is everything all that it seems?
Much will be said about the highly explicit and erotic love scenes of ‘The Handmaiden’ but they are not the primary attraction here, and in fact play very much a secondary part in a story which is about so much more than just a passionate relationship between two women. Indeed, this story was nothing like the one I was expecting, but that is absolutely to its advantage rather than its detriment. ‘The Handmaiden’ is beguiling and transfixing right from the start, lavish and lascivious in nature, with visuals that will stick with you for a long while afterwards.
Split into three definable parts, the interwoven plots only increasing in intrigue as the time passes. It somewhat appropriately resembles a story-striptease, with each layer that is peeled off being more satisfying than the last. It was surprisingly funny in places as well, but far from being definable as a comedy! This is a film which transcends genres; it is a masterclass in storytelling, a film which manages to be visually stunning and narratively satisfying in equal measure.
Tae-ri Kim as Sook-Hee is immediately likeable and charming, and she really sells this performance. The relationship between her and Min-hee Kim’s Lady Hideko is believable and the chemistry is palpable from the moment they first meet. Jin-woong Jo as Lady Hideko’s abusive Uncle is also excellent, convincingly conniving and creepy. The portrayal of male and female characters in ‘The Handmaiden’ is endlessly fascinating, with women being seen as pure, spirited and intelligent, whilst the men don’t fare quite as well, largely being portrayed as grimy, perverse and mean. It never hammers this home however so it avoids being offensive and instead ends up being somewhat empowering and undoubtedly satisfying, and the performances – all of which are flawless – contribute to that enormously.
If I had to find a fault in ‘The Handmaiden’ – and it is difficult believe me – is that there is perhaps one love scene too many and whereas they served a purpose for the most part, there was one in particular which bordered on the gratuitous. For a film which is so much more than just that one part of the plot, it was a little disappointing to give into that so late into the story and came across to me as just “giving the people what they came here for”!
Overall, however, ‘The Handmaiden’ is a daring diegesis of desire and deceit that is sumptuously designed, lavishly crafted and expertly executed. Easily one of the best films of the year so far, ‘The Handmaiden’ is unlike anything else you will see, and utterly unmissable.
Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, Hae-suk Kim, So-ri Moon