Movies · Reviews

You Can’t Go Wrong Opening Your Film Festival With Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden

By  · Published on November 12th, 2016

And that’s just one of the things that Ithaca Fantastik 2016 gets so right.

My review of The Handmaiden is below, but first, some words on Ithaca Fantastik.

Film festivals are a wonderful thing. They offer a temporary escape from the real world – well, unless it’s a documentary film fest – through a typically wide variety of movies. As someone who watches a lot of movies throughout the year, fests offer a respite from expectation resulting from studio marketing and online articles covering casting, character looks, cameos, and more.

When you sit down for a fest movie it’s often with the knowledge that you know next to nothing about what you’re about to see. That doesn’t make every film a winner, but it leaves you making discoveries on your own without a media filter telling you what’s good or bad. The myriad surprises are worth the price of a handful of misfires, and if you love film and have yet to attend a fest I highly recommend you find one near you and just go.

And if you’re anywhere near central New York, I can’t recommend Ithaca Fantastik enough.

It’s a genre-oriented fest, my favorite kind, and 2016 marks its fifth year in the small college town of Ithaca, NY. It’s a beautiful location and time of year (November 9–13) for a fest as the time between movies and chats with friends and strangers alike can be spent wandering a very lively community. The two colleges here keep the town bustling, and that population means the downtown streets are filled with restaurants, bars, and shops – some chains, but mostly small independent businesses – catering to all tastes and interests. You’ll want to get out of downtown though to walk the neighborhoods and surrounding areas populated with Victorian-style homes, waterfalls, and plenty of hills to balance having sat in theaters for several hours at a time.

The movies and locale will be the main draw here, but I’d be remiss in not mentioning the staff running things behind the scenes. They’re some of the friendliest people I’ve come across in my fest experiences, and their love of film is exceeded only by their kindness. All of them work their asses off ensuring audiences are having the best time – from the fest staff themselves to the people running the fest’s theater, Cinemapolis – but if you get the chance to attend be sure to spend some time around Ithaca Fantastik’s creator, Hughes Barbier. I say that as if you have a choice… he’s everywhere, he’s hilarious, and he’s highly approachable. Just look for the man with the constant smile, excitable limbs, and urgent desire to talk about movies.

This is a small fest showing 38 features and numerous short films, but the variety is evident across selections from the US, France, Italy, India, Spain, Japan, and more. One of the fest’s best films – one of the year’s best films – comes from South Korea and opened the fest on Wednesday.

Park Chan-wook has already established himself as a brilliant filmmaker with an eye for exquisite detail and a taste for life’s darker urges, but while past gems like Lady Vengeance, Thirst, and Oldboy delivered thrills and beauty in equal measure his latest accomplishes that and far more to deliver one of the decade’s most exhilarating and satisfying love stories with The Handmaiden.

Korea in the early 20th century is a country occupied by Japanese forces. Locals struggle to survive, and sometimes that means taking jobs with the enemy. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired to serve as handmaiden to a young woman named Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who’s heir to a Japanese fortune and currently in the care of her domineering Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong). The uncle plans on marrying her for the money, but someone else has a similar plan.

Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) is a Korean swindler who has made a career posing as a Japanese playboy, and his current target is Lady Hideko. He arranges to get Sook-hee the job to provide both intelligence back to him and to subtly encourage Hideko to accept his advances and ultimate offer of marriage. The handmaiden, an accomplished thief in her own right, goes along with the plan in exchange for a substantial cut, but her desire for profit is soon challenged by an entirely different passion.

The setup is simple. The outcome is anything but.

The Handmaiden is a relentlessly gorgeous film with every frame offering beauty of some kind or other with its cinematography, story turns, and performances. Part twisty and kinky love story, part searing dismissal of the male gaze, this is a mesmerizing love story in the guise of a period thriller.

Park’s script – co-written with frequent collaborator Chung Seo-kyung and based on Sarah Water’s novel, Fingersmith – is in the form of a deliciously crafted and staggered reveal. We see the story unfold only to then revisit elements of it from a different perspective that fleshes out the various characters and pieces even more. And I do mean fleshes out… this is a highly erotic film complete with both graphic interactions and far more subtle glimmerings of sexual desire and affection.

The fleshy couplings will be a draw for some, as well they should be, but part of the film’s genius is in its admiration of women and unforgiving indictment of men who view them as mere objects of pleasure. From the uncle’s library of erotica that ranges from mere S&M to far more elaborate and demeaning tales to the role he’s trained Hideko to fulfill, the film acknowledges male oppression for the unwelcome deviance that it is and celebrates women in response.

Far from a dry lecture though, Park layers these ideas into a suspenseful and surprising story of a con gone sideways. Unsurprisingly for those who’ve seen his earlier films, he also pairs the commentary and sharp story turns with welcome (albeit sometimes jolting) moments of blackly comic and broad humor. This is a very funny film even as it also succeeds at being a thoughtful, thrilling, and arousing tale of love against the odds.

At nearly two and a half hours, the film never drags as we’re constantly in awe of the experience. Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography enraptures viewers with a camera that shifts between lush movement and perfectly-framed tableaux. The score by Jo Yeong-wook is equally adept at transporting us into Park’s rich and meticulously-designed world. The performances take hold as well with some pulling at our heart strings while others flick our funny bones.

The Handmaiden is a movie you experience and one you lose yourself in for a captivating and rewarding 140 minutes. Those looking for a break from today’s world can hardly do better than to immerse yourself in Park Chan-wook’s latest.

Ithaca Fantastik 2016 runs through Sunday the 13th, so if you’re nearby you should swing by for a movie. If not, mark it on your calendar for next year. I know I already have.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.