By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
In Japanese-occupied Korea, a petty thief (Kim Tae-ri) agrees to pose as handmaiden to a beautiful, unstable heiress (Kim Min-hee) to help her dashing, smarmy accomplice (Ha Jung-woo) seduce her and throw her into an asylum as soon as the ink dries on their marriage papers. Sensual gamemanship, deceit, betrayal, sexual perversion, graphic violence, and brutal revenge follow soon after.
Talk about a Park Chan-wook joint…
Park Chan-wook as accomplished a gothic stylist as exists.
The Handmaiden‘s gorgeous sets, costumes, and props, and Chung Chung-hoon’s decadent cinematography, in a different register than what he’s done before, all speak to this simple fact. Park is a painter working with his entire palette here, and besides visual mastery, he takes a plot which may be familiar to some (at least British viewers) and turns it on its head- producing a truly refreshed, more nimble, even playful, yet still pitch dark and disturbingly funny all at the same time adaptation, then stuffs it full of rewarding callbacks and subtleties. Everything both on screen and on page is very meticulously interrelated, and the way the plot restarts from the middle and folds back in on itself enriches the experience and creates escalating momentum.
I know I say nobody controls and mixes tones like Koreans, and Park remains the King. It’s not all about that mix of comedy and drama, horror and tragedy that it seems like the great Korean directors can pull off like nobody else, though. Similar to Blue is the Warmest Color, The Handmaiden builds its emotional resonance off of a lesbian relationship that is sold entirely by the committed performances of its leads, both of whom are tasked with, and perfectly fulfill the task of carrying the audience’s sympathies and emotional investment. It’s also brilliantly feminist, perhaps despite its male director, as well. One display of revolution is as sublime a scene as has been shot this year, just exhilarating, heart-lifting, exuberant, and, finally, beautiful.
A final shout-out to Ha Jung-woo, who creates a complex asshole who’s easy to love to hate. His and Cho Jin-woong’s incredibly skin-crawling villain’s final scene is macabre, yet beautifully bittersweet.
Also similar to Blue is the Warmest Color, one can definitely make the case that the graphic sex scenes shot by a male director are a taaad bit male-gazey. In particular, the final sex scene, despite serving a purpose, is really quite unnecessary. There’s also just a tad bit of Thomas Kincade-sheened dodgy CGI as well, and both issues combine for an ending that threatens to go a bit too treacly, even if Park pulls it out at the last second.
A man who’s grossed more from coffee mugs than Van Gogh saw in his entire lifetime.
The Handmaiden is as lushly stylish, fucked up, and ultimately satisfying a film as Park Chan-wook has yet made, with a new, powerfully feminist message.
The Handmaiden (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for filthy art
Take a Drink: for cigarrettes, hairpins, snakes, or moons
Take a Drink: for the same scenes from different points of view
Take a Drink: for double crosses
Do a Shot: for the damn wooden man