Many worlds collide in Park-Chan Wook’s THE HANDMAIDEN. The old, vibrant mansion against the new and muted cityscapes of the early 20th century, the Korean and Japanese spoken here, the sometimes dark and brutal subject matter to the dry humor that Wook can excel at (see: Oldboy). Essentially, juxtaposition is key here. In some ways, this film is an indescribable one; it’s so many things at once. This is a ride, one that I don’t even want to describe much because this is a movie you should go into blind. But I’ll do my best.
The best character in THE HANDMAIDEN is Park-Chan Wook’s camera. It’s defined and rigid, fluid and omniscient, measured and constantly moving, flamboyant and timed for comedic effect, wide and even gorgeous. Meanwhile, this camera captures the fantastic production design, putting an absolutely enticing and breathtaking culture onto celluloid, all the while capturing the beautiful performances of Wook’s leading ladies.
Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee both give complicated performances that reflect the complicated plot, one in which Sook-Hee (Tae-ri) tries to scam Lady Hideko (Min-hee) into an insane asylum, taking the money and running away with her accomplice and planner, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), but not before experiencing a sexual awakening of sorts with Lady Hideko. This brief plot synopsis is just not enough to describe the intricacies of this three-dimensional narrative, one which involves not only twists and turns but an ingenious flashback structure. Subtext is also key here: this is a film taking place during the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, a time of oppression with a huge dose of melancholy. Park-Chan Wook uses this to meditate into complicated issues of feminism, sexuality, and a whole lot of creepy 1930s erotica. Yes, this is a perplexing film, but it’s also a wondrous and successful attempt to make an uncensored, exhaustive Hitchcockian fever dream into a hell of a time at the cinema.
But there’s a controversy here I need to address.
This is a contentious film because of its lesbian sex scenes, which were described as bloated, perverse and perverted. This is somewhat true; I never found the scenes to be quite “male gazey” as some would call it, mainly because this film is a lot about discovering who you are, including sexually, making the camera’s BRIEF focuses on the female anatomy be more about a repressed, uninvited sexuality than exploitation. However, the scenes are a little long, even if they are mostly filmed with wide angles and in a non-voluptuous way. In fact, this entire film, clocking in at 145 minutes approximately, is a bit bloated in the way it emphasizes points we have already gotten, especially in its protracted and occasionally repetitious montages. Its ending especially feels extended and familiar with each scene, making points already understood by the viewers more and more obvious as the third act stretches its welcome into a redundant conclusion.
THE HANDMAIDEN isn’t for everyone; the squeamish and homophobic should beware. But otherwise, this is an extremely entertaining thrill ride that will make your jaw drop in places but become an idiotic grin in others. (The so-far unmentioned score is also a strong part of this film’s somewhat off-putting yet delightful charm). An extraordinarily satisfactory experience. Catch it if you can.