You Might Have Missed: The Handmaiden

There is no such thing as a perfect film. But, at least in my view, there are films that are in and of themselves and as pieces of their respective genres the best they could possibly be. And as you can probably imagine, I could count all of them on one hand.

That’s not necessarily what I’d say about The Handmaiden—the latest film from South Korean director Park Chan-wook—if only because it does so many things so exceptionally well that I can’t constrain it to any of the labels I can give something like Arrival or Mad Max: Fury RoadThe Handmaiden is a masterful revenge thriller, a lesbian romance about female empowerment, an exploration of the entire spectrum of sexuality, and the best piece of Gothic fiction I’ve ever watched. It is Jane Eyre mixed with The Westing Game mixed with bouts of comedy and interludes from Marquis de Sade all set on fire (quite literally, in one part). It is singular—something I know I will never see the likes of again—and occupies a position all to its own.

It’s also best experienced knowing as little about it as possible, so I’m just going to leave a giant SPOILER TAG here so you can go see it for yourself.

(If you want to go ahead, I’ll try not to spoil anything huge, but part of what makes this film great are its surprises, and reading anything about it will unavoidably give something away.)

I legitimately do not know where to begin with this film’s story, so let’s start with the technical stuff. The directing is, in a word, amazing (as are the cinematography, the sound design, the score, the editing, and every other cinematic aspect this movie has to offer). It glides through scenes like a symphony and makes a two hour, twenty-four minute runtime feel not just earned but incredibly satisfying. Everything meshes like the workings of a world-class orchestra; the music flows with each camera angle, accents with each character’s expression and movement, the camera lingers on certain images or objects—hints of a twist to come—and in the end they feel not like individual notes but like a perfect chord, held for an unimaginable amount of time by a team of the greatest musicians to ever grace the Earth.

I know I just used several musical metaphors, but there’s a reason I keep coming back to them: in the way that it mixes and matches elements that seem disparate but together generate an enthralling harmony, The Handmaiden feels like a piece of music. In the same way that a chord sounds completely different from each of its individual notes, Park’s film somehow manages to take the elements of an uncountable number of genres and make something eminently recognizable yet wholly unique. All of my comparisons are mixed or extended metaphors because, in essence, there’s nothing I can compare it to. Its particular combination has never been made before.

That’s not to say it owes no debts—as I mentioned, it’s a huge, sprawling piece of Gothic fiction and embodies every aspect of that genre. There’s a massive, imposing mansion à la Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, a character—Kouzuki’s butler, Sasaki—whose every expression and movement feels like a voyage into the uncanny valley, and murky, repressive Victorian ethos that permeates every minute of the film (even though it’s set in Japanese-occupied Korea). But even then it decides to explore the capailities of the genre in ways decidedly unique—creating through its shots, settings, and quick, seamless editing an atmosphere of surrealism and sensuality so intense and immersive that it’s hard to put into words.

Speaking of which, this is a film that absolutely loves sex, almost as much as it loves talking about sex. But while in less capable hands it could have easily become gratiuitous (or downright pornographic), The Handmaiden takes its exploration of sexuality to levels of complexity and nuance again unique to its special brand of storytelling. Its investigation of gender roles and norms continues to add layer after layer throughout its entire runtime, culminating with a series of scenes that seamlessly alternate between sexuality at its worst and sexuality at its best. At certain points, it slips between reality and fantasy so quickly and effortlessly that the transition from outside to inside—from world to mind—seems almost dreamlike. Moreover, its central love story, between Lady Hideko and her titular handmaiden, Sook-hee, feels so layered and genuine that the film’s extended, graphic sex scenes don’t feel even a little gratuitous.

No—all the gratuitousness is found in the realm of Kouzuki’s library, a trove of pornographic literature that he uses to seduce potential buyers into coughing up every ounce of money they possess. It’s a veiled yet pointed metaphor for faceless sexuality—the kind removed from any singular person—and makes its presence felt from its first appearance to its eventual fate.

Now, somehow I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning the film’s plotting. (Again, if you haven’t seen it, skip this part.) Split into three parts, The Handmaiden takes the tried-and-true Sin City/Hoodwinked/The Hateful Eight approach of telling a story from multiple perspectives, with each adding new information to scenes we thought we’d already fully understood. Little hints stand out—a piece of rope dangling from a tree, an out-of-place laugh—but in the moment they just pass by, lost in the sensory overload that the movie purposefully evokes. And then, when they come back (and, in my theater, audible gasps were heard), another piece fits into the puzzle; another note joins the growing chord. The Handmaiden abounds with a storytelling device known as “Chekhov’s gun”: in essence, an object or phrase or piece of scenery that seems to serve no purpose yet later becomes an essential part of the plot (in some cases, over a timespan extending from the beginning to the end of the movie). And at times, these fly so quickly they almost gave me whiplash—or they would have, if they hadn’t been so perfectly spotted.

Moreover, the film’s dialogue—which alternates between Japanese and Korean—operates on the same concept. Phrases return like boomerangs, unexpected but impeccably placed, adding with each instance a new layer of understanding to the film’s intricate, weblike plot. And then there’s the nature of the language-switching itself, used to indicate the perspectives of certain characters, or their attitudes and personalities, manipulated and played with sometimes multiple times in the same sentence. This is a film that understands code-switching on an instinctive level and employs it expertly as a narrative tool. In short, The Handmaiden is a masterclass on narrative building—a perfect example of what information to give an audience and how quickly to give it away.

There is undoubtedly more I could write about what may very well end up being one of my favorite movies (if not #1 itself), but at that point I’ll just be rambling through time that would be better spent watching the film itself. I’ve talked about the direction, the music, the seamless editing, the atmosphere, the genre-work, the plotting, the central romance, and everything else I could think of that The Handmaiden blends into its stunning fictional feat. (The characters, while just as masterful, should be experienced by themselves—and in any case I want to see the film a second time before I even attempt to write about them. In other words, expect more in the future.)

So, TL;DR, go see it. Movies like this don’t come around very often. And when they do, they deserve to be seen.


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