Movie Review: The Handmaiden



Unrated 2h 24min

Director: Chan-wook Park

Stars: Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo

by Jason Koenigsberg

Chan-wook Park’s newest film The Handmaiden is a rich and brilliant narrative and his finest film thus far. It slowly unravels showing us the same scenes from different perspectives revealing new facts each time. He takes a lot from Hitchcock, Fellini and Orson Welles, but what filmmaker doesn’t, and crafts an expertly woven feminist journey with lurid eroticism. 

The opening shot displays Japanese soldiers marching in the pouring rain as children are singing in the background. A woman cries out that it should have been her sent to “that Jap’s house”. The next shot is a winding road by the sea making the juxtaposition of those two scenes feel a lot like Federico Fellini’s La Strada (The Road in English) and the main plot of The Handmaiden is similar to La Strada. Both films are about women being given away by their families to serve a strong, successful man. Both are also films about the long cloud that World War II cast over regular working class people, La Strada for Italy and The Handmaiden for Japan and Korea. 

This film is ultimately about women and their roles and class structure in Korea during the time Japan was expanding its colonization in the twentieth century. The struggles that these women face are mirrored in todays society but to a much smaller and less extreme degree. The main character in The Handmaiden is sold into a sort of slavery to serve a wealthy woman who is arranged to be married to her rich uncle. The plot involves a forbidden love triangle between the two women and a man. All three characters are very flawed and not entirely what they appear to be which we learn as the complex web they weave slowly untangles. Emphasis on slow, because that is The Handmaiden‘s biggest weakness. The picture moves very slow at times especially in the middle, but eventually the plot reveals some major twists and the characters motivations are divulged adding more intrigue so the audience will be able to forgive the meandering pacing because they will be wrapped up in the story. 

The Handmaiden features a melodic score, pretty sets and realistic costumes but they are all intentionally muted and not meant to stand out and overshadow the performances. It is a major benefit to the film that none of those elements are over the top and gorgeous because that kept the focus on the actors and the story throughout, which is what made this film work so eloquently. The cinematography featured a lot of symmetry. Shots had a distinct symmetrical look with both the set design and the placement of the actors. The camera work also lent itself to some beautiful and steamy moments all of which were handled with a sense of class. The erotic scenes in The Handmaiden are carnal and sumptuous but done with elegance, never feeling prurient which they could have in the hands of another director. 

I mentioned Hitchcock earlier and like a lot of his suspense films, The Handmaiden shares similar elements that Hitchcock’s greatest pictures regularly comprised. It focuses on female characters, themes of voyeurism and contained a sharp dark sense of humor throughout. However, The Handmaiden is inarguably very feminist. The male characters think that they are in control but in reality the women always have the upper hand. The society they inhabit is so male dominated on the surface but in this particular story, the women are calling all of the shots. The Handmaiden is a masterful picture and one of the best imports the USA has received in 2016. 

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