Review: The Handmaiden

A twisting, turning erotic thriller with a perfect screenplay and great performances.

A Korean con artist wants to work his way into marriage with a rich Count’s niece solely to become wealthy himself. To do so he hires a young girl to become the noble woman’s maid to help setup his romance and convince her to leave with him. However, who is playing who becomes unclear…

Boy, I don’t know what to say without giving the game away; it is like treading on eggshells.
Ever since seeing and loving director Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy I have been committed to watching his movies ever since. They tend to slip by me though, but The Handmaiden released in 2016. Just in time.
The film is absurdly reliant on its twists and turns, analyse here would potentially spoil a lot, but this 1930s period piece is loaded with great performances, double-crosses, sexual content and… true love stories, that is really packs a punch. It took me a while to realise that this film could be put in a genre I never touch: the period piece romance.

Of course, this is Chan-wook Park we are talking about. The Handmaiden is still a cold, dark, erotic and morally warped affair, but it is exquisitely executed; this is how you write a screenplay. While Oldboy is perhaps the definitive story of revenge, The Handmaiden is far more calculated and layered, and strings you along for the ride, drip-feeding you crucial scenes and elements only when you need them. Written by anyone else, this would have made for a fractured, confusing narrative but here it is dynamic and ever changing, watching alliances between characters change, to watch an actor’s nuanced performance that you thought meant one thing suddenly revealed as much deeper intentions!
It is definitely a harmony of performance and writing, however the set design and direction around this creepy old house, a mix of English and Japanese architecture, should not be ignored either.

It is probably one of the steamiest movies I’ve seen in a long time, yet it is riddled with an underlying sense of dread and cruel lust. This is most definitely an adult movie. Like a lot of Park’s movies there is always more going on than you realise and most incredibly with The Handmaiden, despite all of its on-the-surface depravity and gratuitousness, is actually all about female empowerment.

It is crazy, yet amazingly well crafted in all regards!
I would say though, I still hold Oldboy above this movie. While a comparison should never be a gauge of quality, I guess ultimately I don’t fall for this genre or sub-genre too easily, and some of The Handmaiden did feel some what… deliberate. Including a scene towards the end (not the literal ending) that felt drawn out.

It boils down to personal taste on this one. On a technical level and on a performance level, this film is completely unmatched. Chan-wook Park remains one of the great powerhouse directors of our time.



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