THE HANDMAIDEN Review
Director: Park Chan-wook
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
It wasn’t too long ago that I watched Akira Kurasawa’s HIGH AND LOW for the first time, a picture that I referred to as the greatest film Hitchcock never directed. That statement was primarily referencing Kurasawa’s knack for composition, blocking, and understanding how to unfold a mystery without ever coming across as contrived. Characters would sashay across the stage in theatrical movements, denoting power-plays and emotion through their physicality. This is a tradition that seemingly died with the advent of modern cinema, where more stoic, talking-head performances began to dominate the silver screen. Along comes Park Chan-wook, following up his 2013 English-language thriller, STOKER, with his latest property, THE HANDMAIDEN, a film that I can confidently say will preside as the most rounded use of the cinematic language I have seen in 2016.
In a cascading, gothic mystery, THE HANDMAIDEN cultivates the storybook sensibility that Guillermo del Toro loves, but the screenwriting nuances that he never had the narrative fortitude to tackle. From its first frames, THE HANDMAIDEN is breathtakingly gorgeous, and never lets up in aesthetic charm, constantly reinventing itself, modulating and elaborating its visual storytelling. Rarely have I ever been angry with myself for not knowing Korean and Japanese, because THE HANDMAIDEN’s dual-subtitles can occasionally be difficult to keep up with, and make the subtleties of Park’s directing all the more challenging to appreciate.
The only plot point I’ll spoil is that this film is sexy as all hell
Told in three acts, THE HANDMAIDEN unfolds like a traditional fairytale, but uses darker twists to subvert the viewer’s narrative expectations. Inverting the archetypal role of Prince Charming through an erotic, lesbian narrative about a captive Japanese heiress and her Korean maid, THE HANDMAIDEN is a prototypical fable. Telling more about the narrative would already start giving away too much of the plot. Few films encourage to be viewed completely blind, but I’d wager that THE HANDMAIDEN demands it for full dramatic effect. But perhaps its greatest accomplishment is that despite its narrative inventiveness, it isn’t a one-trick pony, ultimately crafting an ensemble thats just as compelling as its base narrative.
Park is fantastically literate in his understanding of the camera. Where his contemporaries Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon focus on theme and genre, respectively, Park is a filmmaker whose talents have always presided in cinematic form. I would argue that Bong Joon-ho still maintains his title as Korea’s most gifted cinematic artist, but THE HANDMAIDEN showcases a unique set of visual skills that neither Bong nor Kim have managed to express. This is a film that seamlessly flips from page-to-page, allowing its 167-minute run time to fly by like a breeze. Just when you think you know the entire story, Park reveals a new piece of the puzzle. Like undoing a paper crane, THE HANDMAIDEN only reveals what it really is the moment the last frame crosses the screen.
“Relax, you don’t know the whole plot yet so of course things aren’t making sense.”
But what’s so uniquely beautiful about Park’s film is that apart from his formal brilliance and his propulsive narrative, THE HANDMAIDEN doesn’t solely rely on its twists to be entertaining. Characters are consistently front and center for Park’s narrative, and their interactions with one another are what grip the viewer in the first place. I never found myself watching THE HANDMAIDEN eager to figure out the next twist. I was too busy caring for the two protagonists. Instead, each narrative fulcrum informed on a piece of subtext that I had trouble understanding earlier. This isn’t a film that was reverse-engineered to convenience its winding premise. At the end of the day, Park is still a romantic, and even in his most provocative thrillers, whether it be OLDBOY or THIRST, his vision of love is his most telling cinematic trait, always prioritizing character over story.
It frustrates me to no end knowing that the bulk of my peers will never see THE HANDMAIDEN. Among this year’s festival highlights and Oscar-predictions we have timely social portraits and tense family dramas, but Park Chan-wook’s film is liberating in its embrace of aesthetics. This is pure cinema, a film that cherishes every frame and doesn’t accept shortcuts in the editing bay. I found myself on the verge of tears with every emotional highpoint, absolutely in awe of the cinematic talent that I had the privilege of experiencing. THE HANDMAIDEN represents everything that cinema strives to be and commands visual storytelling with a vice-like grip. Though a handful of its narrative beats might leave viewers stumped due to their meager contrivances, just about anything can be forgiven here, because I didn’t think films like this could still get made.