Review: 'The Handmaiden' Is a Beautiful Revenge Mystery

Sam Reynolds ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Park Chan-Wook has built a reputation by using film to explore his fascination with classic revenge fables and humanity’s inner-darkness, most notoriously recognized in his now-classic 2003 film Oldboy. In Chan-Wook’s stories, there are never any real protagonists to root for, just terrible human beings with terrible secrets that result in awful, vengeful conclusions. In many ways, Chan-Wook’s latest film, The Handmaiden, fits comfortably into the man’s canon. All of its players are manipulative, secretive and fueled by self-gain. Yet The Handmaiden reveals itself to be an entirely different kind of story than Chan-Wook has taken on before, and to an incredibly satisfying result.
The Handmaiden is all at once a crime-drama, mystery-thriller and romance, never allowing the audience to feel confident to say exactly which as it unravels layer after layer of itself. With its consistent genre-bending and plot twists weaving interchangeably throughout the film’s 167 minute run time, the story’s coherence could have easily been lost in the hands of a lesser director. But thanks to Chan-Wook’s impeccable direction and understanding of tone, The Handmaiden proves to be not just a successful and thrilling piece of cinema, but an important one.
Ha Jung-woo, Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee and Jin-woong Jo in The Handmaiden. Photo Credit: Amazon Studios.
Told in a three act structure, the story revolves around the relationship between a mysterious heiress (Kim Min-hee) of a huge Korean estate, and a lowly pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) who poses as her new handmaiden, with the secret intention of stealing the heiress’s riches (and life) by working alongside a conman (Ha Jung-woo) posing as a wealthy count. But of course, the plan proves to be anything but simple, as the heiress and her handmaiden begin to fall in love with each other, raising questions and doubts of every character’s motivations and desires.
And that’s how the film gets you.
The more you think you know about the story and its characters, the more twisted and complicated the film becomes. It dedicates its entire first act in investing the audience in a classic crime-thriller tale, before uprooting all of its groundwork in a fantastic twist, morphing into something else entirely. Like its multi-faceted characters that trick and connive their way through the film’s world, there is nothing surface level in The Handmaiden, as the real story is what lies in the secrets Park Chan-Wook masterfully withholds from the audience until the proper moment. The Handmaiden thrives on your assumptions, and takes absolute pleasure in ripping the rug up from under you.
Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden. Photo Credit: Amazon Studios.
Identity is a theme that runs rampant throughout the film… through nationality, class, sexuality and gender, as each character is pushed into proving how far they are willing to go to overcome their societal chains. The way Chan-Wook examines identity, both visually and narratively, is something to be admired, as he deploys masterful camerawork to fully explore each character’s relationship with their situation and surroundings. And speaking of visuals, The Handmaiden is nothing short of spectacular. Though the film is set in the 1930s, its dazzling color and set pieces do not feel bound to a single time period, creating a timeless cinematic aesthetic that immediately grabs the viewer’s eye and imagination.
But what The Handmaiden reveals itself to be under all its misdirection is a compelling love story between it’s two female leads, and their drive for freedom and independence in a male dominated society. Their passionate relationship is depicted in a refreshing manner simply because the film wastes no time in trying to sell you on it’s characters struggle with sexual identity as most mainstream films of the topic do, but instead focuses on their fight to be together without their male figures plaguing their lives.
Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri in The Handmaiden. Photo Credit: Amazon Studios.
The film even goes borderline meta in its depiction of balls-to-the-wall sex scenes, as a large portion is spent exploring the male characters’ sexualization and fetishization of the woman around them. Though it is clear that the men of the story are nothing short of pigs in the way they view women and desire, the way Chan-Wook intensely focuses on lesbian sex throughout the story makes one wonder if his graphic depiction is progressive, or in fact fetishized in itself, and whether or not Chan-Wook himself was aware of this while making the film.
But still, the women’s strong relationship is what rings true, and ultimately what ties The Handmaiden together. Park Chan-Wook continues to solidify himself as an important voice in modern filmmaking, and The Handmaiden serves as an important testament as to why the world needs more female-led cinema.
Overall Grade: A-
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