Park Chan-wook once again plays outside the proverbial box with The Handmaiden, another stunning epic from the South Korean filmmaker whose name has become synonymous with breathtaking cinema. Chan-wook has become one of those few storytellers whose every work is an event, a film you simply have to see for yourself to take in all the wonder and beauty that comes with it. His latest is just as subversive, blending an efficient, con artist story with an abundance of strange sex, horror atmosphere, ultra-feminism, and, yes, even love. The Handmaiden quickly proves itself as yet another glorious masterpiece of visual style and effective narrative that eats away at your brain long after the final curtain has been raised.
Moving the setting of Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith” from the Victorian era in England to Korea under Japanese rule in the early 20th century, the love story at the center of The Handmaiden revolves around Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) an orphan raised within a group of pickpockets who is ordered by her con man benefactor, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to become a maid to the enigmatic yet delicate Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Hideko’s uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), keeps the girl and watches over her with a stern eye, but Sook-hee’s presence means much more for the fragile dynamic in the country estate than the con game at Fujiwara’s request. It isn’t long before Sook-hee and Lady Hideko are drawn close, a nudge coming from the very subversive nature of it, and the two women must deal with the crushing dictatorship within the home as well as the Japanese-occupied Korean country around them.
As with his previous works, Park Chan-wook layers his film with copious amounts of meaning. Unlike his previous films like Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, The Handmaiden doesn’t play out as a revenge thriller, though you know the moral implications of everyone’s actions are sure to bring about their own sense of justice in the end. Instead, Chan-wook packs The Handmaiden’s tale of forbidden love with miles and miles of symbolism, the visual nature of Uncle Kouzuki’s vast and multicultural mansion revealing something of a symbol itself for the occupation in the film’s setting. Everything about Sook-hee is subversive, and it’s in this subversion that Lady Hideko finds her ultimate release.
Chan-wook’s film takes its time playing out (at 144 minutes), every frame offering a wonderment of visual beauty that only a handful of filmmakers seem to able to achieve. The Handmaiden is absolutely an achievement for the already established director, his gift for beauty and sweeping grandeur seemingly growing with each, passing film. Once again the South Korean filmmaker establishes himself as one of the truly great artists when it comes to visual style. You simply cannot take your eyes away from the image as the breathtaking story envelops you in its waving tentacles and circular, patriarchal relationships.
Each of the four characters are fleshed out with superb accuracy, but it’s in the performances of each that Chan-wook finds what he is truly trying to express. Sook-hee is quietly strong, the kind of character whose nature is unexpected and surprisingly resonant, and Tae-ri plays the part with impeccable nuance. With little more than a few glances and fewer words she gives one of the strongest performances the filmmaker has ever caught on camera, and that includes Choi Min-sik’s performance in Oldboy and Lee Young-ae’s performance from Lady Vengeance. With Tae-ri’s performance, Chan-wook has captured the beauty and alienation of Japanese-occupied Korea in stunning subtlety, something that completely breaks through any sense of being lost in translation.
The other, lead performances are superb, as well, but Kim Tae-ri rises to the top. It becomes a performance worthy of the film around her, the meticulous grace with which Chan-wook shoots every scene proving once again what a phenomenal artist he has become in the world of filmmaking. The Handmaiden is everything you would want and have come to expect from the gifted director, and it effortlessly proves itself as one of the finest works of cinema offered this year. With equal parts style and surprise, the film and filmmaker blow away all expectations, something even more surprising given the quality of his previous films. The Handmaiden is truly something to behold, and Park Chan-wook reestablishes himself as one of the greatest filmmakers working today.
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