The Handmaiden is Park Chan-wook continuing to be one of the best directors working today, as this twisty love triangle gets as weird and wild as you would hope from Park.
The film opens with a young thief in training, Sook-Hee, who is recruited by another thief, Count Fujiwara, to pull off an elaborate con to seduce and swindle a rich heiress, Hideko, who is being forced to marry her uncle. As Act One unfolds we watch Sook-Hee and Fujiwara dance in their scheme around convincing Hideko to elope with Fujiwara, but as the film moves into Act Two everything gets flipped on its head as layer, after layer get revealed.
The experience of watching all of the twist and turns play out is what makes The Handmaiden so fantastic, so no more spoilers there, but Park isn’t afraid to throw anything at you as we learn the back story of Hideko and the life she was put through. Act Two really takes this film to another level, perfectly setting up a thrilling conclusion as all the cards are laid on the table. And when I say Park isn’t afraid to throw anything at you, the guy is just as weird as ever and playing more to his kinky side than the violence he is most famous for. That said, he really captures the passion and romance on display in this story and doesn’t shy away from getting rather explicit, if that isn’t your thing.
Park beautifully captures the period of 1930’s Korea, as most of the action takes place in this house that is half Japanese influenced and half English inspired. The sets and costumes are gorgeous and I can’t wait to see this again just to take in all of the details in the film. The construction of the film itself is also something to adore, as Park has all of the confidence in his audience to hang on as he cuts back and forth, showing us other sides of half a scene you saw earlier, as he catches us up back to the present of the film. The editing and pacing just suck you in and you will not feel the film’s two hour plus runtime in the slightest. The score is also fantastic from Jo Yeong-wook, who reteams with Park again after his American experiment in Stoker (which is still fantastic, go watch it, I just did). Jo’s score fits the period but also embraces the oddity of the Park’s film, ratcheting up the weirdness and tension whenever necessary.
Park’s cast is also on point from top to bottom, perfectly capturing the tone of the film which wavers on being trashy (good trash) while remaining a gorgeous period drama. Kim Min-hee stars as Hideko, and is wonderfully duplicitous whenever necessary. She brings so much to this meaty role, Kim takes full advantages to show off the many shades of Hideko that are revealed over the course of the film. Tae-ri Kim is also excellent as Sook-Hee, as she plays the most consistent role in the film, while really giving it all in her big emotional moments. She also has some excellent comic timing, which comes into play much more than you would expect; Park hides a lot of humor in here. Ha Jung-woo nearly matches the ladies as Fujiwara, and I really appreciated how he plays the character in the third act and his final scene. He is appropriately cocksure, but also wonderfully calm and still in some of the film’s more thrilling moments. His silent work in the “reading” scenes shouldn’t go underappreciated. Jo Jin-woong gets to have the most fun, playing to the camp/trash more than anyone else, always reminding you that Park wants you to have fun watching this movie. Playing Hideko’s uncle over many time frames, he can be a nasty fella, but Jo gives one of those performances that you barely even notice he is so crazy.
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is one of the best films of the year, hands down, and I can’t wait to see it again. This might be Park’s most accessible and re-watchable film yet, but it is by no means a lite version of his filmmaking style. Gorgeous, weird and built off a wonderful script (adapted from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith), The Handmaiden should not be missed.