The Handmaiden (2016)

Director: Park Chan-wook
Writers: Park Chan-wook & Chung Seo-kyung
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo.

The Handmaiden opens with a notice to people watching the film with subtitles: it reads that throughout the film all Korean dialogue will be marked in white script, while Japanese dialogue will be in yellow. Immediately I was grateful for this notice, because all too often, a film will be marketed internationally with very little attention paid to the small things that are lost on those who do not speak the language of the dialogue, and thus subtleties are lost, which can lead to a fuller appreciation for a film. It also immediately clues in those in the know that the film must take place during the Japanese occupation of Korea. While I do speak a little Korean and can tell the difference between the language and others, many do not and cannot, and thus just a small gesture like this one can aid in an easier viewing experience (unlike, say, the film The Silenced, which I reviewed a couple of months ago). Yes, this is another Korean story of the Japanese occupation, and at times does fall prey to the same old tired concept of the pure evil Japanese obsessed with tentacle porn, but it does it in a refreshing new way that ultimately isn’t distracting or annoying.

This is actually the first film by Park Can-wook I have seen. I couldn’t bring myself to see some of his other films because I had heard how graphic and violent they were, and I wasn’t sure if I could take them, but this one seemed different, so we decided to give it a shot, especially when it began to receive incredible acclaim and all sorts of praise. I am glad I did. Visually the film is like a moving painting. I cannot express how absolutely beautiful the shots are. Meticulous attention is paid to each and every single item in every shot, time is taken to see actions through and then some, from set design to the costumes, an intoxicating level of beauty and care runs through the entire film. Korea is already a gorgeous country with mesmerizing scenery, and the camera catches every single aspect of this. More than once I exclaimed out loud how perfect a shot was executed. The film is a visual masterpiece.

It is also a great story, but that is much harder to write about. The film takes place in three acts, and each provides a more complete and clear understanding of the events transpired. The narrative is one full of twists, turns, perspectives, allegiances, and truths and lies that render any attempt to summarize them trite. I started to write a linear summary of the story, and erased it as I realized how conventional it began to sound, while the movie is anything but. I will just say that at one point or another everyone in the film, including the audience, is being conned – it is not until the very end that the viewer is clued in as to what has truly happened and why, and this final realization is magical and earned.

The acting is fantastic, with each character having to embody several different perspectives and natures, while not betraying a single one of them – which is very hard to do, especially as well as how the actors manage to do so here. There is a same-sex lesbian story that at times borders on the gratuitous, not so much in the nudity (which does have some aspects of the male gaze) but especially in the way lovemaking is portrayed on screen, it comes down to more of a male wish fulfillment than a realistic depiction of lovemaking between two women, which is the one unfortunate element in an otherwise brilliant film. In so many ways it is just as gorgeous as last year’s Carol, and yet so much more urgent and thrilling and palpable than the aesthetic perfection that that movie was, but oh so sterile and detached. The emotions present in The Handmaiden are real and raw, letting the viewer into the emotions rather than at a distance and detached. The film captivates you, intrigues you, and doesn’t let go of its hold until the very end. What more can you ask for?

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