Movies · Reviews

The Handmaiden Review

By  · Published on May 15th, 2016

The Handmaiden is a Depraved New Film From The Director of Oldboy

Old habits die hard…

Korean auteur Park Chan-wook has become globally adored for his twisted tales of revenge and betrayal. This is the filmmaker who single-handedly sparked worldwide interest in new Korean cinema with his 2003 film Oldboy. Park lost a few devotees in 2013 when he made his English-language debut with the mostly divisive Stoker. Now the auteur returns to his native language with The Handmaiden, a film that finds Park experimenting with new forms while remaining faithful to his roots.

The film unfolds in three parts, the elaborate con of the Count (Ha Jung-woo), as he attempts to woo the wealthy Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and take her fortune. The count recruits pickpocket Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) to pose as Hideko’s handmaiden and convince her to marry the count.

The Handmaiden begins just a bit too straight, at least too straight for a filmmaker with Park’s reputation for the sick and twisted. As the multi-layered plot starts to unfold, Park’s perversions emerge, and while the film may not be as fucked up as Oldboy or Thirst, it retains Park’s trademark nonetheless. Park spends the first part of the movie laying groundwork for the characters and plot. The journey through this section of the film is a little slow and seems just a bit too clichéd for a film set in the 1930s. As part one reaches its conclusion and the film launches into a wild part two, it becomes apparent that the languid pace of the first hour is entirely just. The film noir-like tone established at the beginning of the film gives it a wonderfully filthy campiness as alliances shift and sexual relationships form. This first part almost seems like something Bette Davis and Joan Crawford could have made in the 1930s; that is until the 69ing comes along.

Yes, as the film rolls into its second hour the depravity associated with New Korean Cinema emerges in shocking and often cringe-worthy exploitations. Depictions of graphic sex and bloody violence are welcome after the somewhat tame first act. As the film reveals its full potential, it becomes apparent that Park is in complete control of the difficult material. While very much carrying over the themes and narrative style of Park’s recent films, The Handmaiden very much calls back to Oldboy in its rather gleeful depiction of torture. The film even features the obscene use of an octopus, a visual callback for fans of Oldboy.

Discover More: Cannes 2016 Coverage

Park also seems to nod to Blue is the Warmest Color in the representation of extended lesbian sex scenes in The Handmaiden. They may not be as graphic as the ones in Blue, yet they occur as frequently and explore a similarly creative use of sexual positions. The film also explores sexuality through verbal description, a tool that many other erotic thrillers fail to utilize. One sequence in which Hideko reads – and then demonstrates – erotica to a group of men manages to be simultaneously arousing and uproarious.

At two-and-a-half hours, The Handmaiden may be a bit too long, and it certainly takes its time to get moving. However, once things start to move along and come together, the journey is riotous, depraved, and delightful.

Related Topics:

Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.