Stylish and deceptively complex, Park Chan-wook proves, once again, with The Handmaiden that there are plenty of ways to spin a story. A romance wrapped inside of a caper, his latest film approaches sexuality and storytelling in interesting and daring ways. Anchored by a cast that has a lot to do, with a script that is nuanced and sprinkled with mystery, there are only minor blemishes to fault The Handmaiden with – blemishes that are easy to ignore.
The story begins quite simply, as a Korean thief, Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) is tasked with duping a wealthy, Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), into a marriage that will provide a grifter, Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) with her inheritance after committing her to a mental hospital. The scheme is simple, but requires hard work on Sookee’s and Fujiwara’s parts. Split into three parts, Park deftly establishes nuances early on and prepares viewers for ebbs and flows that will ideally amount to something climactic and fruitful. At times humorous, with plenty of thrilling components, the script is by far one of the film’s strongest parts.
However, the screenplay is also the part that has the most laborious task. The film consistently carries an undercurrent of sexual tension and mystery. This tends to lead to a lot of build, with very little release (pun intended). Billing this as an erotic thriller is not too far off because of how heavily its explorations of sexuality tie into the plot. Sensual imagery lingers, burning slowly as you wait for someone to react extremely. Restraint goes a long way into making the entire last hour of The Handmaiden palpably emotional. Mix with that the moments of levity that comedy serves, and you have a strong relationship between all the characters that lends itself well to empathizing.
If anything, the difficult part to stomach on occasion is the film’s first major twist, which immediately pushes you away and then tries to reel you back in just as fast. The ebbs and flows are more often found in the second act of the film, as it keeps pushing and pulling away from you. It’s hard not to describe The Handmaiden‘s script as a sexual experience, because the erotic moments are just as memorable as the moments when you’re left wanting. Plus, the second act introduces a level of darkness that now serves as the undercurrent to the sexuality.
Language and country also play a huge component in the film. Park explores tensions between Korean and Japanese peoples, constantly switching between languages spoken when suitable. It fits in context of the film, and helps to underline the film’s surface-level ideas of there being potentially different views of a single situation. It’s used both to add flavor and to serve as a plot device.
There is also one major character who is difficult not to enjoy as well as discuss. Park has very much dealt with characters who have had influence on other major characters, and Hideko’s uncle (Cho Jin-woong) is another one to add to his collection. In the first act, he adds humor to the film, but he also remains an ever-present character in the backdrop. The first introduction to him is memorable, but also foreshadows a far more complicated film than what is on the surface. It isn’t until his physical presence is far more common that you realize how much of an allegory he is for the director, Park Chan-wook. As a book collector and avid fan of stories, he serves as the central focus of how important stories are and why perspective matters so much. He is also one of the more eccentric characters of the film, providing both levity and tension.
The Handmaiden never ceases to feel entertaining. When it’s not creating a complicated relationship between its characters, it’s looking marvelous with production design that is out of this world. The score is very reminiscent of Park’s last film, Stoker, which gives it a sense of aristocracy and dread. Its entire aesthetic feels calculated. In addition, there’s a style that echoes his previous efforts and feels wholly his own.
I think there is far too much to appreciate in The Handmaiden than immediately catches the eye. It starts with a slow burn and fools you into thinking this is a traditional romance. But its use of sexuality as a way to tell an intricate story is incredible. Park continues to demonstrate why he is one of the greatest directors working out of South Korea today.
- Screenplay is incredibly complex and nuanced
- Acting is superb with a memorable character in the Uncle
- Aesthetically gorgeous from both score to production design
- Approaches sexuality in a daring and interesting manner
- Does spend quite a bit of its introduction feeling conventional
- Minor tonal shifts that occasionally feel jarring