The Handmaiden (2016); Sex and The Big Screen at its Best
I almost don’t want to write a review about The Handmaiden. I went into this film knowing absolutely nothing about it except that its directed by South Korean visionary Chan-wook Park. Park first came onto my radar back in the gestation of my cinephiliac days after I stumbled upon Oldboy. Young and ripe in my cinema fandom, Oldboy completely changed my perspective of what film could do and was capable of. Oldboy is a masterpiece that astounded me to the point of possessing a permanent residence among my top favorite films of all time. When a friend mentioned she was seeing The Handmaiden for her birthday and that Park was attached, I asked no questions—just showed up.
What I watched in a theater of about 13 people was unlike anything I had ever seen before and perhaps the most intimate movie going experience of my life. For that reason, I want people to stumble into this film ignorant of what it is. I want anyone who sees this to be completely unaware of its plot, its content, it’s twists and turns, and the sensations that will arise from it. I want this film to utterly blindside and shock you, and regardless it will. I want The Handmaiden to make you shuffle in your seat, cross your legs in prurience, and fan yourself as emotions arise and your body reacts to the images that flow across the screen. To watch this movie and take note of your responses to it is what the cinematic experience is all about.
So because of this, I will not delve into the plot much except to mention that it’s set in the early 20th century with Japan and Korea as its backdrop. The story breathes in a time of history that I knew nothing about: Korea under the rule of Japan from the early 1900s until the end of WWII. Park uses this setting to allow both cultures to revel in their history while complementing and critiquing aspects of both. Prepare yourself. Although The Handmaiden moves in a placid flow, it simultaneously plows through elements of the story.
English-speaking viewers will likely have a bit of trouble keeping up at first due to both Korean and Japanese being spoken throughout the film. Subtitles are present to guide you along (Japanese in yellow, Korean in white), but if you have a brain like mine that likes to wander attempting to pick up subtleties in inflection and culture, it’ll do you good to know that you need to shut off your mental tangents to fully focus on what is going on.
The plot of this film is grossly captivating and it shifts and turns in ways you wouldn’t expect or imagine. It’s an ode to film noir, more specifically the femme fatale. It’s a feminist herald that combines explicit sexual content in beautiful, and at times ghastly, ways to both sensate and criticize the society in which the film is set. But that’s beside the point. The Handmaiden impresses here mostly because of Park’s visual mastery of the camera complimented by editors Jae-Bum Kim and Sang-beom Kim. Meanwhile, cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung, proves absolutely magical creating breathtaking visual cues and a trenchant color palette. The Handmaiden is stunning. It’s the type of film that will likely get nominated for an Academy Award for its visual talents, if the Academy has the balls to give credit to such a controversial piece.
Park doesn’t just use his visuals as a pretty centerpiece. He brilliantly directs with levity littering nuggets of hilarious moments on a continued basis throughout. The Handmaiden is a must see film that will challenge your thoughts about cinema and about sex. It’s reminiscent of past films like Blue is the Warmest Color and In the Realm of Senses. But where Blue fails in its depiction of consensual sex between adults by filming in exploitative, harsh ways centered through a male-gaze, and In the Realm of Senses lacks in its ability to bring excitement to its love scenes, The Handmaiden marries art and titillation for an almost completely new framework to center its images through. Sure the film could’ve shaved off some scenes to lessen its 2 hour and 47-minute runtime. And yes the last scene is completely unnecessary and I thought the men of this deserved harsher comeuppance all around. Despite it all, The Handmaiden is a witty and brilliant film that I recommend everyone see. But not with your family. For God’s sake don’t see this with family.
SEE IT. But seriously, don’t bring your mom.