‘The Handmaiden’ MOVIE REVIEW: Park Chan-wook’s Erotic Thriller is a Must-Watch

Image via Dreamwest Pictures
Image via Dreamwest Pictures

In cinema, love, betrayal, guilt and manipulation are concepts that are as old as time. However, Park Chan-wook’s erotic thriller, The Handmaiden, is a breath of fresh air that expertly incorporates these concepts and leaves the audience begging for more.

The characters, normal in their own worlds but extreme to the audience, are rendered believable by the impressive cast cast. Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-Hee, a young, non-educated yet street-smart thief who is hired by a ruthless con-man, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to be the handmaiden of the rich but naïve Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Lady Hideko’s Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong) intends to marry her niece for her fortune, but Count Fujiwara has other plans. The plot can only be surmised so much without ruining its magic; it’s truly more enjoyable if one knows less. Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee’s solid performances rise up above the rest. Kim Tae-ri plays a quirky, silly handmaiden, with traits that are often depicted in Asian cinema and compliment the character very well, while Kim Min-hee convincingly portrays quite the terrifying Lady. With these two actresses and their great performances, the movie thematically explores the role of power within relationships.

The striking beauty of The Handmaiden reveals itself in the first scene, in the grey, rainy, damp Korean village. Also distinctive is the harmonious countryside of Japan, with its picturesque pathways, lying in stark contrast with the gothic mansion in which our characters live. And the contrast wouldn’t strike that pitch-perfect chord if both the interior and the exterior were not so elegantly planned and designed. The landscape is lush, bringing to mind a more jovial mood, whereas the broody, gothic mansion serves to foreshadow the darkness of the characters within. The contrast is supplemented by the minimalist design accentuating each scene that takes place within the mansion.

Image via Dreamwest Pictures
Image via Dreamwest Pictures

Chung Chung-hoon’s alluring cinematography carries the audience from one beautiful shot to the next. Every set is superbly detailed, yet never calls attention to itself, and the costumes perfectly display the transition period from traditional to modern that occurred in 1930s Japan and Korea .To put it simply (in the spirit of the movie’s cinematography), The Handmaiden is a cinematographic achievement.

Park Chan-wook juggles the balances of power throughout the movie and weaves it within a wonderfully composed narrative. Each scene can be interpreted as a display of power. Love? Power. Fear? Power. Every interaction, every smirk or tear, is in some way a form of power and a treat for the audience to unravel. What is power, you ask? As the sequences unfold within magnificently colourful, meticulously detailed scenes, knowledge itself becomes the power, and herein lays the movie’s beauty. As the movie unpacks wave after wave of mystery and shock, the audience is rendered helpless alongside the next perceived victim in the story.

Usually, mystery movies leave snippets of plot and progress here and there for the audience to ponder over. They build up, sometimes slowly, to a penultimate revelation. A director may spruce up those sequences to make them interesting, perhaps adding a gunfight here, a death trap there. Park Chan-wook, however, though following some convention, almost impatiently wants to hurl the audience into the action, the action in this case being the film’s ‘erotic thriller’ elements. Indeed, all the violence and the blood are connected to sex and overall erotica, which is somewhat of a change for the director, who in previous work has used revenge as the driving force behind his most successful movies, such as those in his aptly named Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Old Boy).

It’s admirable how Park Chan-wook uses sex to tell a story, to build up mystery and to shock rather than to simply tease the audience (looking at you, Bond films). This movie is an erotic thriller through and through; it knows it, and proudly displays the lesbian erotic energy that bursts through the screen in tasteful, intricately choreographed yet raunchy scenes. The Handmaiden‘s eroticism delves into the ugliness, misinformation and stigma that can often haunt certain sexual encounters. Such is the case when Count Fujiwara, in an attempt to have sex with Hideko, claims, “I too read a book a few days ago. In there it said when women are forcefully taken, they have more pleasure.” It’s an intense scene, perhaps more so with the knowledge that such ideas poisoned at least one disturbing approach to sex for years to come.

Image via Dreamwest Pictures
Image via Dreamwest Pictures

As sombre as that previous paragraph may be, dark humour is the name of the game for The Handmaiden. The movie may be dark and intense, but it is also funny, especially in its depiction of the absurd world of aristocrats. Perhaps the movie’s most hilarious scene takes place when wealthy Japanese lords watch, with great concentration, a woman lustfully reading Japanese erotica. Their desire twists and cringes them as the blood pressure increases to the naughty words that echo throughout the room. It’s hilarious because it’s absurd, and it’s absurd because the scene is the outcome of the isolation in which these Western populist 1930’s aristocrats live in. The Handmaiden finds its essence in dark humour, and assembles this absurdity as the background for the dark story, in turn making it an absolutely joyous 135 minutes of modern cinema.

On occasion, the movie may have a few audience members a little lost with some of the heavier details and dialogue that can get lost in translation. However, if confusion does arise, one can still drool over how visually stunning the film is at every moment.

Beautifully shot, excellently scored and meticulously detailed, The Handmaiden is a must-watch for movie lovers everywhere. It’s important to always keep an eye out for director Park Chan-wook, who has once again proven himself a very solid and consistent filmmaker.