Originally published on May 15, 2016. The Handmaiden is now available on Amazon Prime instant streaming.
Overview: A con man hires a pickpocket to help him, but things go awry when unexpected love develops. CJ Entertainment; 2016; 145 Minutes.
The Web: Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden builds a web of deception and manipulation, a story in which the roles of puppeteers and puppets are indistinguishable. The film tangles the relationships between three primary people. Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is a wealthy Japanese heiress promised to her predatory uncle. Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a young thief disguised as Lady Hideko’s eponymous servant. And con man Count Fujiwarawho (Ha Jung-woo) who hires the pickpocket to sway the heiress into falling in love with him so that he may steal her fortune.
These characters lie. They betray. They backstab. Motives are always enshrouded in narrative fog. Performances, especially those of the female leads, accentuate this duplicity. Kim Min-hee as the proposed victim Lady Hideko balances confidence and naivete, dominance and submission. Kim Tae-ri as Sookee creates a dichotomy of innocence and guilt in her extremely confident screen debut.
Chan-wook: The film, with its composed atmosphere and elegantly haunting aesthetic, is an early contender for Best Director here at Cannes. At points, this erotic thriller resembles a horror film in tone and execution. Wook masterfully sells the convolution of the script, which, in lesser hands would undeniably feel messier and less nuanced and effective; this is a match made in heaven. He handles the twists and turns with a delicacy that doesn’t allow the convolution of the narrative to overtake the craft (as even the best deceptive stories often do) and is so assured in his direction that even the most bizarre chapters feel genuine.
The film is efficient and its pacing taut and economic- a welcome experience in the Cannes sea of three hour films (many of which would benefit heavily from some time in the editing room). Told in three clean parts, The Handmaiden weaves in and out of different perceptions and embeds subtle hints and clues that add to the complex mystery at the film’s core. Each element compliments the next perfectly and every scene seems to offer only new information. The cinematography from long-time Chan-wook collaborator Chung-Hoon Chung upholds the excellent artistic standards of their earlier films. Everything, from the creaky halls of the estate to the basement torture chamber underbelly and the exquisite outdoor sequences, resonates with an elegance that completely mesmerizes. This aesthetic language, paired with a beautiful orchestral score, establishes a wealth of depraved beauty to the film.
Overall: The Handmaiden is an extremely entertaining, gorgeously presented sleek film, oozing with eroticism and hiding maliciously dark undertones beneath fantastic performances, even if it is not always serious.