FILM REVIEW: The Handmaiden (2016)
From the way The Handmaiden has been marketed and written about following its 2016 release, and the amount of times I have noted the words ‘erotic’ and ‘thriller’ bandied around within the opening paragraphs of synopses and reviews of the film, I went into this screening expecting a 50 Shades of Grey-meets-Basic Instinct kind of affair, all twisted limbs and dusky lighting and noirish undertones; a film that you’d be mildly embarrassed to watch with your parents, with lashings of crime and sex blended awkwardly together to form a cheesy and cliché-ridden plot.
As you can probably tell, I am not a fan of erotic thrillers. And luckily my presumptuousness was unfounded, because the category ‘erotic thriller’ doesn’t come anywhere near to encapsulating Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden, a film that is so bold and multi-faceted that it would be an insult to ascribe to it such a simplistic label.
I should preface the rest of this review with a warning, because although I don’t intend to divulge any major spoilers, I strongly feel as though this is the kind of film that is best enjoyed when the viewer knows nothing about what is coming. There are myriad surprises hiding within The Handmaiden’s many layers, and much of its allure lies in the mechanics of its intricate plot, which unfolds across three chapters.
Our titular handmaiden, Sook-Hee, is sent to a sprawling country estate to serve under a Japanese heiress named Lady Hideko, who lives a secluded life at the behest of her creepy uncle. As each chapter unravels, though, we learn that Sook-Hee is not all that she seems, and neither is Hideko. From start to finish Park is pulling us in multiple directions, revealing the complexities of the plot and the duplicitous motivations of his characters with precision pacing. And, best of all, he does it whilst evidently having a lot of fun and relaying that fun to the audience; there isn’t one moment that drags, and the film is highly entertaining from start to finish.
The Hitchcockian narrative is presented to us in a sumptuous package. The level of detail inserted into every single frame is exquisite, with the meticulous production design and costuming fusing elements of Gothic horror, classical film noir and Japanese art and architecture. The staging and sets are as multi-layered as the plot, and Park’s direction is on-point – particularly in the second chapter, where scenes from Part One are skilfully re-shot from new and revelatory perspectives.
His direction of the three main actors, too, is impressive, especially in the performance he gets from Min-hee Kim, who plays Lady Hideko. She is required to wear multiple guises – strong, vulnerable, cunning, seductive, naïve, powerful – depending on the scene/chapter that she is in and how much of her backstory has been revealed, and she manages it seamlessly. It helps that there is natural chemistry between her and newcomer Tae-ri Kim, who is both innocent and streetwise in the role of Sook-Hee, adding to the mix another dimension of duality.
The theme of duality is present in almost every scene of The Handmaiden and is expressed in its cinematography and abundant use of symbolism. In fact, the symbolism that is employed throughout the film is often so overt that it verges on comical, but it’s this slightly tongue-in-cheek approach that makes it so fun. Art cinema usually takes itself so seriously but Park’s sense of humour is a large part of his success here. He pulls us through a gamut of emotions, from shock to awe to amusement, dealing with the frequently dark and twisted subject matter in typically defiant style.
It is nice to see a film that is so unashamedly hyper-feminist, so much so that it feels like an antidote to Hollywood’s underestimation of women in powerful roles. A scene towards the end in which some books are destroyed (which is all I can say without giving too much away) is, again, totally over-the-top in its use of feminist symbolism, but is joyous to watch and would make even the most hardened misogynist smile (maybe). And it’s this scene which encapsulates The Handmaiden’s spirit perfectly, and Park’s approach to making it; fun, authentic, and completely unapologetic to the end.