Saturday, December 17, 2016

Review: The Handmaiden (2016)

The Handmaiden, the latest thriller from Korean director Park Chan-wook, is a remarkable film that may not be for everyone, but is well worth seeing if you can withstand some graphic sexuality.

For those unfamiliar with Park's earlier films like Oldboy (2003), the non-Park film The Handmaiden most closely resembles is Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak. Both are Gothic thrillers centered on an outsider entering the home of some perverted weirdos. However, whereas del Toro's film, though beautifully constructed and visually sumptuous, is relatively straightforward narrative-wise -- most viewers will see the ending coming a mile away -- The Handmaiden is full of delicious, shocking twists and turns. It's like Crimson Peak filtered through the multiple perspectives of Kurosawa's Rashomon and infused with the narrative urgency and edgy sexuality of the Wachowski's Bound.

Yet even these comparisons do not capture the exact tone and visual aesthetic of The Handmaiden. Park is a world-class auteur with a sensibility all his own. I admit that Oldboy is the only other Park film I've seen (sorry, Thirst and Stoker!) yet I can truly say it is unlike any other movie I know. Park's Handmaiden is similarly unique, a really terrific thriller, a visually brilliant cinematic adventure, and a searing love story all at once.

The story begins with Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), the titular handmaiden, who arrives at the sprawling, picturesque, yet forebodingly creepy estate of Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong). 

I really cannot say more without revealing spoilers, which I do not wish to do. Suffice to say that none of the principal characters is quite what they appear to be at first. The method by and pace at which Park gradually reveals layers of the truth is indeed Rashomon-like in its brilliance and elegance. Each new revelation changes not only what we know of the unfolding plot but also what we know -- and more importantly, how we feel -- about the characters and their relationships to each other.

The Handmaiden is propelled by the intensity of its eroticism as well as its brilliant reveals and plot twists. It is like a vastly more nuanced and interesting version of what Gone Girl more clunkily attempts. As The Atlantic's David Sims notes,
more than anything, The Handmaiden is just pure cinema, a dizzying, disturbing fable of love and betrayal that piles on luxurious imagery, while never losing track of its story’s human core.
Yes indeed. I was frankly amazed at The Handmaiden's ability to provide so many chills, thrills, and horrors while preserving the beautiful, touching romance that lies at its center. In this sense it is superior to the aesthetically masterful yet less emotionally gripping Crimson Peak, a film I champion and love a lot.

Like most thrillers, The Handmaiden is about surveillance -- about watching, spying, and (correctly and incorrectly) perceiving. This is a motif that Park and his cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon convey especially well. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Park is particularly adept at placing and moving the camera in such a way as to reveal just enough to keep the viewer on the hook. Like many of Hitchcock's works (e.g., Rear Window, Psycho), The Handmaiden is a "puzzle film" in which what we see is frequently misleading because it is only one character's subjective take on events.*

The Handmaiden's most wonderful scene, which really sums up everything I love about this movie, takes place under a certain tree that figures heavily in the plot. It is a darkly comic scene in which two characters reveal deep inner truths to one another while caught in a strangely precarious and life-threatening situation. I would almost recommend that folks see the film just for this remarkable, touching, hilarious sequence alone.

Again, The Handmaiden will not appeal to everyone, focused as it is on explicit sexuality, some of which leans toward the perverted and unusual. To take just one example, one early scene depicts the most erotic use of a thimble I have ever seen. And Uncle Kouzuki's interests -- and the various ordeals to which he subjects Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) -- are quite disturbing to say the least. There is also some third-act violence that, while restrained next to that seen in Oldboy, may be too explicit for some viewers.

Nevertheless, The Handmaiden is a fine Gothic thriller that Leah Greenblatt accurately describes as "a historical romance that is to Merchant Ivory what Molotov cocktails are to tea cozies." Well said. Despite its sexual edginess that may place it outside the tastes of some viewers, I agree with Greenblatt's conclusion that The Handmaiden constitutes "the most twisty, audacious, and wildly sexy 145 minutes of cinema this year." Highly recommended.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-Hee in Park Chan-wook's gripping Gothic thriller The Handmaiden.

UPDATE 12/17/2016: Since posting this review earlier today some folks have correctly pointed out that it doesn't acknowledge The Handmaiden's status as an adaptation of Sarah Waters' Gothic novel Fingersmith (2002). This is true -- I didn't discuss it because I am unfamiliar with the book, but I agree that I should have at least mentioned its existence. Plus I have it from reliable authorities that the film is a fairly faithful adaptation of that source novel, with a few incidents condensed and fewer characters made the central focus. I am also told that that amazing, erotic thimble scene I mention comes from the original novel.

* The connection between Hitchcock and Park is made explicit in Stoker (2013), a thriller that borrows plot elements and character names from Hitch's Shadow of a Doubt (1943). A.O. Scott describes Stoker as depicting "a world of lurid, saturated colors; languorous camera movements; temporal displacements; and jagged shards of sound." This reminds me of The Handmaiden actually. And while Scott expresses mild disappointment with Stoker's third act, I still plan to see it due to its references to the Hitchcock film and on the basis of my friend AJ's positive recommendation. As Peter Travers puts it,
Some will find it too much. Screw them. Park's goal is to bust form, not conform to it. Take Stoker for what it is: a thriller of savage beauty.
Sounds good to me! I am also reminded of fellow Korean Bong Joon-ho's delightfully twisty Mother in this context.

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