The time is the Japanese Occupation. Sook-hee (played by Kim Tae-ri) is a street-level thief and con artist who like anyone else is just trying to get by. Opportunity arises in the form of the Count (played by Ha Jung-woo) who needs assistance as part of an elaborate scheme to gain access to the family fortune of Hideko (played by Kim Min-hee). All is not as it seems. Although in the movies, when is it ever?
There are three distinct acts in "The Handmaiden". The first is told from Sook-hee's point of view, the second Hideko's, and the third...well, I'll get to that later. Perspective is everything in "The Handmaiden". While Sook-hee is the main character, we're watching a story about the plucky girl from the streets willing to take any risk for the sake of betterment of her life. As times goes by, this fate becomes increasingly intwined with Hideko, a woman who lives unhappily in luxury.
Once the story turns to Hideko's perspective "The Handmaiden" gets markedly more weird. In mundane weirdness, it turns out Sook-hee had many scenes not mentioned during her part of the story that make the plucky girl seem more the target than the con artist. Retrospectively this gives the first act the feeling of being the story that Sook-hee tells people so that she looks more heroic.
But Hideko's more exotic weirdness involves...well, tentacle rape and the like. I kind of want to attack "The Handmaiden" for being anti-Japanese by resorting to the old gross hentai attack, but the original source material for "The Handmaiden" has Victorian England as a setting. Which actually gets into all sorts of interesting questions about how the colonialist upper class worldwide tended to descend into perversion mostly because they didn't have to do any actual work.
Such questions tend to be irrelevant to "The Handmaiden", though, which for all practical intents and purposes is just a love story with a complicated framing structure. The third act exists mainly to allow director Park Chan-wook to rework all the contradictory story information we've seen into something mostly coherent. But it's always the plot that has to be put in full perspective. While "The Handmaiden" has all sorts of vaguely intriguing ideas simmering at the surface, none of them really end up meaning a whole lot upon closer analysis.
Even calling the movie an erotic thriller is giving the story a little too much credit. There's not really all that much sex and an explicit point is made about how words and images alone can be a more powerful stimulant than the real thing. I mean, shoot, check out Kim Min-hee in that adorable kimono. The manor grounds too prove a rather impressive backdrop.
The visual design of "The Handmaiden" is itself borderline pornographic- which makes the movie pretty impossible to dislike. And I did like it. My neutral analysis is mainly a consequence of the film's narrative being impressive in presentation rather than depth. While that much probably prevents "The Handmaiden" from qualifying as truly great, I can still state rather comfortably that it's pretty good.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Handmaiden""
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