The Handmaiden Review

The Handmaiden has received remarkable attention across Europe and America in turn setting a new standard for international cinema, says Torjus Roberg

For weeks now, the most frequent ad that has been popping up in my social media feed, Amazon recommended list and in my email newsletters is Chan-wook Park’s latest film, The Handmaiden. I am not sure what that says about me but it definitely created a sense of mysticism around the film. And if I were to use one word to describe the film it would be just that; mysterious.

A lot of chatter has been swirling around this film; some claiming it is little more than softcore porn and fetishism, with others claiming it to be a beautiful love story. Certainly, it is a film which can be easily misunderstood if not considered as a whole. What director Park has done is to deliberately make a very graphic film but with love always as the central theme. Its non-chronological three-act structure throws the audience straight into the story but does so without bewilderment and confusion. The attention of the audience is maintained by keeping them guessing about what comes next, as well as wondering what happened before.

Image: Curzon Artificial Eye

I generally manage to watch most films objectively but I would be lying if I said this film didn’t make me blush a time or two. Park brilliantly interweaves romantic elements into what I would otherwise classify as a mystery thriller which results in a fresh twist on the genre. Park is hardly new to the game and has in the past proven his skill with films such as Stoker and Oldboy, but has perhaps now made his best film yet.

The Handmaiden obliterates the conventional notion of ‘storybook love’ by telling a love story like no other”

Set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea the film tells the story of Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) who poses as a handmaiden for the Japanese noblewoman, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), in an elaborate scheme to try and trick her into marrying the con man Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and rob her of her inheritance. Set to marry her sadistic uncle, Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), Hideko is prepared to do anything to change her fate. However, Sook-Hee is ultimately faced with a choice between the thought of the wealth that will come from the swindle and her developing love for her victim. The Handmaiden is an erotic odyssey which had me hooked from the very first minute.

Image: Curzon Artificial Eye

Style-wise, the film is what I would call clean, cold and beautiful. Despite some sections having little dialogue, Park’s shots and camera angles speak volumes and result in a feeling of isolation further enhanced by the film’s eerie soundtrack which had me on the edge of my seat. The colour palette of the film corresponds with this mood and the use of cold colours reflect the often sad and rainy scenery. The element that makes the setting so engaging is the acting. All the main roles are truly brilliant and the actors bring them to life with almost frightening realism. Unfortunately, all of the principal actors are not particularly well-known to a Western audience, this will hopefully change after The Handmaiden.

The film dances on the line of fetishism but also emphasises the difference between eroticism and perversion. The great contrast in the film is the love Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko feel for each other versus the twisted sadism that happens around them. The film shows both elements but its explicit scenes are sensual and try to express the beauty of lesbian love rather than perverting it, which makes it a much-needed step forward in LGBT cinema.

Image: Curzon Artificial Eye

For someone who is not familiar with South Korean cinema this is a good starting point, and for any Asian film buff it is a ‘must-see’. The film is surprisingly Western in style and is not too cryptic. Due to its controversial elements, the feeling each viewer will be left with at the end will vary greatly, but it is a film that deserves to be seen. The 2 hours and 24-minute runtime feels like half that due to the well-developed characters and spot-on dialogue.

I actually have a hard time pinpointing the film’s limitations but at times some of the scenes and scenarios seem to be included just for the sake of fetishism. I accept it does its job in fleshing out the characters but one scene in particular simply made me want to turn my face away from the screen and was borderline disturbing. Tentacles. I will leave it at that.

The Handmaiden obliterates the conventional notion of ‘storybook love’ by telling a love story like no other and its unique setting only contributes to making it more special. Very few films receive the ‘badge of honour’ that is instant classic, but I am confident that it will be remembered for years to come as a milestone in international cinema.