The Handmaiden (2016) / Romance-Thriller
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but definitely R (perhaps NC-17) for prolonged scenes of sexuality, nudity, bloody violence, disturbing images, thematic material, and language
Running Time: 144 min. (there is an extended version that runs 167 min.)
Cast: Kim Tae-ri, Min-hee Kim, Junh-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo
Director: Chan-wook Park
Screenplay: Seo-Kyung Chung, Chan-wook Park (based on the novel,"Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters)
Review published November 8, 2016
The less you know about what happens in The Handmaiden the more you'll likely find of interest, so for the purpose of this review, my advice is to watch it knowing as little as possible on what the story's all about, then come back and read this review. Nevertheless, for those who are game, I will continue to strive, as I do in all of my reviews, to not reveal any major plot spoilers that would ruin your overall enjoyment of what is one of the better films of 2016.
The storyline involves the young handmaiden of the title, Sook-hee (Tae-ri), coming to the lush Japanese/Western-designed estate of the wealthy Kouziki (Jo, Roaring Currents) to wait on the every need of his physically and emotionally reclusive niece Lady Hideko (Kim, Right Now Wrong Then), who is slated to marry her uncle in due course. Sook-hee soon discovers the sad Hireko to be a woman of many surprising attractions, which makes her ulterior motives in taking the job, which is to grease the wheels for a seduction of the heiress, originally planned out by her colleague in the thieving industry, Count Fujiwara (Ha. The Chaser), that will bleed her dry of her pricey possessions over due course. As passions begin to ignite, the more loyalties begin to be in question, as the battle between desire for flesh and desire for money is underway, leaving us wondering who has enough control over the situations as they unfold to come out ahead in the end.
Park Chan-wook continues adding darkly funny, taboo-erotic and highly disturbing thrillers to an already impressive filmography with The Handmaiden, which adds a serpentine nature to its storyline that ends up circling in on itself, until, like a boa constrictor, it tightens down until everyone and everything caught within its grasp is left gasping for precious life by the end of it. After one English-language Hollywood film in Stoker, Chan-wook returns to native South Korea for this fetish-tinged shell game, in Korean and Japanese (during a time when the Japanese occupied Korea in the 1930s), despite being based on an English-language Britain-in-the-Victorian-era novel of 2002 by Sarah Waters called "Fingersmith".
Although a lengthy 2 hours and 24 minutes in length, there is so much to the plot of The Handmaiden, as well as so much artistry, that it's nearly impossible to justify removal of any of it due to the high quality of the sumptuously photographed filmmaking, even if you could cite individual scenes that might have been tightened up, if necessary. Although Chan-wook has pulled the rug out from under us on a number of occasions in his prior works, none of his previous entries are as layered in redirection and misdirection as The Handmaiden, which continuously adds more to the story both on the front end and the back end, jumping around in its timeline to reveal even more to the plot and character motivations with each successive reveal.
At its essence, the film reveals the same basic story but told through a succession of points of view among the three main participants, each revealing details to form a complete picture that could not be known by all through their individual perspectives (shades of Rashomon are no doubt deliberate, given the setting). The best of the three "chapters" is the first, mostly due to the way that Chan-wook builds up fine-tuned characterizations and sensuality in a way that would work wonderfully even if The Handmaiden were a straight-shot narrative all the way to the end. Motifs abound, including the motherly position taken by orphan Sook-hee in caring for her Lady, who is often compared to that of a little girl, putting forth the reverse power play in their literal master-servant relationship to fetishistic levels. Indeed, family dynamics are in play for all of the major characters, who often tread the lines of traditional family to include disturbing sexual interests -- a theme that Chan-wook has virtually introduced in every film he has made to date.
Other motifs of the film come from the contrasts between what it real and what is a fraud, not only in terms of art pieces, but also complete identities, as it seems everyone is playing more than one role at various times throughout the narrative's course. The fake is, of course, meant to trick those who aren't diligent about having a discerning enough eye to spot the facade, which, in all respects, leads to a downfall either monetarily, romantically, or even in terms of ones livelihood, depending on how hard they fall for the intended ruse. Lying, cheating, and stealing all have their consequences, but sometimes that can be for the greater, depending on whether a higher and more noble cause is put into play. Chan-wook also shows that being up front about one's intentions also carries its own rewards and punishments, as the lecherous uncle makes no bones about his interests in seedy sexual practices, and his exploitation of them has garnered him great wealth, but that also makes him a mark for either thieves or those who want to exact a form of revenge on his exploitative perversions of sexuality.
Park Chan-wook may not be a household name beyond cinephile circles, but he is definitely a director that turns out must-watch material with each release, at least for those who are able to take the lurid sexual content and moments of sometimes grisly violence that accompanies his stories of twisted characters and taboo developments. What makes this one a cut above your typical suspenser is that Chan-wook puts his characters and their individual stories above the gimmicky plot structure, investing us in seeing how things will shake out for all of them above and beyond just finding out who is left standing at the end of the film. That it's also aesthetically beautiful amid the sordid and often repugnant taint that coats the souls of the characters within is but just one of many facets of Chan-wook's continued showcasing of the deadly laws of attraction, that pleasure can bring pain (and vice versa), that have ruined the lives and loves of so many throughout the course of humanity's covetous existence.
©2016 Vince Leo