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Review "The Handmaiden" (2016)


Title: The Handmaiden (2016)

Genre: Thriller, Romance

Director: Chan-wook Park

Stars: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, and Jin-woong Cho

Bias: Every screenplay I’ve ever tried to write has been a rip-off of a Chan-wook Park movie.

Grade: A

In a Nutshell:

During the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, Count Fujiwara, a Korean art forger who poses as a Japanese aristocrat, plots to steal the fortune of a Japanese heiress named Hideko. Fujiwara’s scheme is to marry Hideko, and then send her off to an asylum. Having lived on her eccentric uncle’s estate most of her life though, Hideko is naive and sheltered, so Fujiwara hires the pickpocket Sook-hee to coach her into marriage with him. But while working as Hideko’s maid, Sook-hee finds herself falling in love with her victim.

The Critique:

The story might be a bit over-the-top, but it’s amazingly engaging. Across its runtime of two-and-a-half hours, this clever mix of dark humor, erotica, gothic mystery, and psychological thriller never fails to disturb, entertain, and surprise. The movie is told in three parts, the first by Sook-hee, the second by Hideko, and the third takes a more objective tone. Some of the second part is a repeat of the first, although Hideko’s perspective turns everything we learn from Sook-hee upside down.

Far from feeling repetitive, this approach adds new layers of depth to the central characters. Even though the cast is small, and the movie mostly takes place on Hideko’s estate, we are so engrossed with the dynamics and intrigue between Count Fujiwara, Hideko, and Sook-hee that we hardly notice how small the setting actually is.

Much like the director’s earlier “Vengeance Trilogy,” there’s a lot of disturbing material in The Handmaiden. I don’t want to give anything away, but Hideko’s uncle Kouzuki, an old man who devotes his life to collecting antique porn, is one of the creepiest villains I’ve seen in a long time. Sexuality is a big theme in this movie, and while Uncle Kouzuki’s sexuality might be dark and perverted, the relationship between Hideko and Sook-hee is sincere rather than exploitative.

Shout-out: The cinematography, handled by longtime Park collaborator Chung-hoon Chung, is stunning. There are many memorable sights in this movie, and its costumes and design really give a feel for the time period.

Choice Quote: “Even listening to the same story, people imagine different things.”

To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix: The Handmaiden had a limited run in American theaters last October. Amazon has made it available for streaming, and a Blu-ray release is set for March 28.

Photo Credit: Moho Film

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