The Handmaiden is a whole HELL of a lot of movie. A caper comedy, a gothic drama, a lesbian romance/erotica, and a surprisingly dark thriller all in the same movie. A lesser movie would turn this many clashing tones into an absolute mess. The Handmaiden is not a lesser movie. It’s gifted with the guiding hand of Park Chan-Wook, a director extraordinaire who is able to turn this movie into a ruthlessly enjoyable and deeply felt masterwork.
Based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Sookee (Kim Tae-Ri) is a young conman and the daughter of a legendary thief hanged shortly after she was born. She’s enlisted by another conman, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo), to help him with a scheme most foul. She will become the handmaiden to the reclusive Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee) and Sookee will push Hideko to fall in love with the Count before her Uncle (Cho Jin-Woong) marries her. Once Fujiwara marries Hideko, he will commit her to an asylum and run off with Hideko’s inheritance, having given Sookee and other collaborators a share.
Of course, what Fujiwara didn’t count on is that Sookee and Hideko would find a connection deeper than a conman and her mark. Of course, a lot of people don’t count on a lot of things in the movie, but don’t let me get ahead of myself. It’s worth seeing the movie.
What’s funny is that I can see a world in which I don’t much care for The Handmaiden. It’s long as hell and it structurally spends a lot of time going back over the same story ground. It’s got tonal shifts all over the place and a lot of plot construction that hangs in delicate balance. This movie could have fallen apart at any point.
But it doesn’t. And though I’ve already done it, I’d hate to be so reductionist as to give all the credit to writer/director Park Chan-Wook (along with co-writer Chung Seo-Kyung). I’d hate to, but it seems like I’m going to anyway.
The Handmaiden is undeniably different from what Park has done in the past. For one, it’s the funniest of his films, far more successful at that than I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK. While a streak of brutal black humor runs through the whole of his work, The Handmaiden has a much lighter and defter tone. It’s often riotously funny (which you wouldn’t have known from the audience I saw it with) and endlessly entertaining. In fact, for a director who seemingly made his name on such dark and difficult films as Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the biggest surprise of The Handmaiden is how accessible and entertaining it is. While his mean and sadistic streak isn’t all gone, it’s replaced by something of a genuine romantic.
What isn’t replaced though is Park’s extraordinary skill as a director. Every image he captures is perfect forward momentum through the story and just stunning to look at. Much of that he owes to his production design team, giving the film a sumptuous Gothic look, particularly in the mansion where most of the film takes place, blending wartime Japanese architecture with dark English gothic. It’s stunning and immaculately designed, but that’s not all.
It’s how Park keeps the tones shifting and blending and keeps the audience on their toes. Directing isn’t just about how you guide the camera, but how you guide the story. Park feels constantly in control of the story, giving it just the right touches of sweetness and humanity at every step to keep it from losing track of what it needs to be. This thing is just fun, there’s nothing else to it. Immaculately made and fun, a side of Park I never thought I’d really see.
That fun has plenty of core, of course. It’s a film with plenty of male gaze, but plenty of critique therein of that. It’s a film about how people fall in love and the choices they make and what they leave behind. It’s a film about sex and kink and the ways that we use it. Park has a lot on his mind (to be fair, I’m sure the original novel did too) through the story.
Of course, it’s not all about Park. Kim Tae-Ri is giving an amazing performance as Sookee, there’s plenty of layers to her performance, playing it just as fish-out-of-water as she is knowing and wry. Her chemistry with Min-hee Kim is real and palpable (in addition to Kim’s own impressive performance) and makes their romance deeply tangible.
The Handmaiden is a really impressive piece of work, the kind of film that feels vital and reminds us exactly why film is still alive in 2016, as well as a reminder of why Park Chan-Wook is one of our most important filmmakers. Accessible and thoughtful in equal measure, it’s absolutely a story that should be seen if you have any love for film.