“The Handmaiden,” directed by Korean auteur Chan-wook Park, is a film that lays its groundwork clearly and thoughtfully, yet continues to surprise with twists without ever lying to the audience.
Told in three acts, the movie at first follows Sook-Hee as she begins working as a handmaiden to a wealthy Japanese mistress named Hideko. Unbeknownst to Hideko, Sook-Hee is working for Count Fujiwara, a conman posing as a noble to seduce Hideko and steal her away from her uncle, who also wants her for marriage in order to get her fortune. To make matters more complicated, Sook-Hee and Hideko fall in love, creating a dangerous atmosphere for all involved.
The most recent film that can be compared to ”The Handmaiden” is “Blue is the Warmest Color,” the 2013 Palme d’Or winner notorious for having extended scenes of explicit lesbian sex. ”The Handmaiden” only has one scene where the sex is explicit, but it is some of the rawest I’ve seen on film.
Another point of comparison is that both films are directed by men (though both are based on books written by lesbian women), and thus have a very rudimentary understanding of both lesbian relationships and sex. However, while ”Blue is the Warmest Color” has been criticized by both the gay community and the writer of the source material, ”The Handmaiden” has not. This is due not to the fact that this is a more realistic tale, but that it is a film that occupies a world with much more fantasy than the latter.
I hardly took any notes while watching this film, as I was so enthralled by the art. The story is captivating, the acting phenomenal and the shots are beautiful. There is a scene where a character tries to kill themselves by hanging from a tree, but is stopped by someone catching them. However, the camera doesn’t let us see this right away. Instead it shoots higher, letting us only see the suicidal figure and the tree they are tied to for several seconds before panning down and allowing us to see they are saved. This kind of direction met with the glorious cinematography of this mansion’s incredibly luscious grounds makes ”The Handmaiden” truly a work of great art.
The film almost has more in common with a heist film than a traditional romance; the characters work to deceive each other and are constantly battling for the upper hand. It isn’t surprising that Chan-wook Park has made a great film here. His filmography is full of gems like this from The Vengeance Trilogy to his most recent, his first American film Stoker. With “The Handmaiden,” he’s made not only a film that stands out as different from his collection but yet another incredible picture.