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  • Writer's pictureHunter Friesen

"The Handmaiden" Throwback Review

Park Chan-wook is a master of blending multiple themes in his films. His newest film, The Handmaiden, further proves his mastery of balancing and wrapping every element together in an enjoyable way. The Handmaiden is many things at once; sexual, thrilling, violent, and dramatic. Brilliant directing along with excellent performances make this one of the best films in recent memory.

The film is set in Japanese occupied Korea during the 1930s. Sook-He is a poor Korean nursing girl that must use her skills as a pickpocket to get by. Her con artist skills get her involved in a plot by Count Fujiwara (a fake persona used by a fellow poor Korean con artist) to steal the fortune from a rich Japanese book collector by marrying his naive niece. Sook-He is sent to the book collector’s vast estate as a handmaiden for the niece, Lady Hideko, who is also the inheritor of the fortune. At first, Sook-He and the Hideko don’t get along, but after some time they begin to get closer and more intimate. A romance and alliance forms, one that changes Sook-He’s original plan. The Count soon arrives and immediately tries to win over Hideko. From this point, the film becomes a twisted game of cat and mouse between the four main characters. You never know who’s on what side and who’s conning who.

Chan-wook presents the film in three equal chapters. Each part focuses on a central character from their point of view. The first follows Sook-He and Lady Hideko and how they initially act around each other. The second goes back in time to reveal Hideko’s childhood and how it was devilishly mangled by her uncle. The third follows the Count and Hideko as they play a game of cat and mouse with each other.

Each chapter intersects with another, creating a timeline where the sequence of events is presented out of order. Actions at the beginning of the film are revisited later at different angles and from different points of view, which reveal new information that is key to the structuring of the plot. This technique beautifully creates characters and events that complex and memorable. Layers upon layers of storytelling are given to us through different mediums. It keeps thing fresh as we are constantly piecing the timeline in our heads.

One could knock Chan-wook for his overuse of gratuitous sex in a few scenes. The romance between Sook-He and Hideko results in intercourse, which ultimately lasts close to ten minutes and ends up feeling like softcore porn. However, the actual sequence is integral to the main story and is done with such care that it barely hinders the overall quality.

Chan-wook is known for his outlandish films that are filled with deep storytelling and rich visuals. Here he has outdone himself as the plot gets more interesting as time passes and the grandiose visuals are candy to the eyes.

He uses the Korean and Japanese languages as an element of his story as each brings its own symbolism and meaning. Characters flip between languages constantly and each shift is for a specific purpose.

As we are the watching the film, we get a sense that the main theme revolves around female empowerment. At the start of the film, both Sook-He and Hideko are servants under powerful men. Their similar circumstances lead them to form their own destiny together, one that is without a master.

The cinematography is gorgeous as we are treated to some of the most elaborate and pleasing shots in recent memory. Chung Chung-hoon uses his full arsenal to create a brilliant sense of atmosphere inside the convoluted mansion. Zoom, pan, and crane shots are used with a clear purpose. They frame the scenes perfectly, giving each actor the right amount of space for their performance.

The acting, like the rest of the film, is wonderfully done. The standout performance comes from Kim Min-Hie as Lady Hideko. Her ability to immediately switch from a naive schoolgirl to a vengeful enchantress creates an aura of mystery around her.

Kim Tae-Ri as the young Sook-He is amazing as well. She brings a sense of youth and acts as our guide for most of the film. We see most things through her eyes and her reactions and facial expressions are tied to ours as well.

Finally, Ha Jung-woo as the Count and Cho Jin-woong as the uncle are a creepy pair of power-hungry men. Their methods may differ, but their results are the same. Jung-woo is confident and cool while Jin-woong is cold and menacing. Both share some great scenes with the lead women and have great chemistry.

The Handmaiden is a film that carries multiple themes and things it’s trying to do. It exceeds in every area possible, keeping right on track as Chan-wook delivers a story that is both challenging and pleasing. The Handmaiden is a feat in cinema that should be seen by all who want to witness a master at his best.


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