Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
(Korean & Japanese with English subtitles)
Directed by: Park Chan-Wook
Written by: Park Chan-Wook & Chung Seo-Kyung
(based on the novel FINGERSMITH by Sarah Waters)
Starring: Kim Min-Hee, Kim Tae-Ri, Ha Jung-Woo, Cho Jin-Woong, Kim Hae-Sook & Moon So-Ri
Director Park Chan-Wook (the man behind OLDBOY and STOKER) puts aside violent shocks in favor of intrigue, brilliant plot twists and eroticism in THE HANDMAIDEN. Based on Sarah Waters’ novel FINGERSMITH, with the setting changed from Victorian London to 1930’s Japanese-controlled Korea, HANDMAIDEN is rich in visuals, acting and plot. This thriller deceptively toys with the viewer’s expectations and kept me glued to the screen. The graphic sex scenes (there’s a reason this didn’t get an MPAA rating) may turn some viewers off, but they feed into the film’s darker, explicit underbelly as well.
Raised in a house of thieves, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) is a pickpocket who’s desperate to get rich quick. Opportunity knocks during a visit from con man Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo). This lowlife criminal plots to marry wealthy recluse Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee) and then have her committed to an insane asylum, leaving him with a fortune in cash and bonds. In order to successfully pull off his scheme, the Count enlists Sook-Hee to pose as Hideko’s newly hired handmaiden. As the Count’s plan moves forward, cunning Sook-Hee and naïve Hideko find themselves discovering unexpected feelings for one another. To say anything more would give away some of the film’s shocks, surprises, and brilliant plotting.
THE HANDMAIDEN is split into three acts and told in a decidedly non-linear fashion. We see scenes play out during one act and then revisit them from new angles later on. Most of the story’s intrigue and mystery come from the four central characters. With voiceover narration from multiple perspectives, THE HANDMAIDEN toys with the viewer’s emotions and offers frequent surprises…along with some near-pornographic sex scenes. There were scenes in this film that gave me flashbacks to BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR‘s now infamous ten-minute sex scene. This movie’s extreme eroticism may seem almost laughable when taken out of context, but it fits perfectly into the plot due to the sheer emotion and complicated relationships between characters.
Besides being sexy and unpredictable, THE HANDMAIDEN’s two-hour-plus running time breezes by thanks to Chan-Wook’s masterful storytelling and directing. The film’s visuals, sets, music and costumes are all equally stunning. The detail-laden technical aspects add a sense of sophisticated class and beauty to a rather dark and suspenseful thriller. Though the script is nearly flawless, I do have one minor complaint. This sole gripe comes from one specific plot point (I won’t go into details for fear of spoilers) that requires a small leap of disbelief. Some viewers could say that I’m nitpicking too deeply, but this detail has been nagging me since I saw the film. One minor plot hole (that could easily be filled in with some guesswork) isn’t enough to keep THE HANDMAIDEN from being one of 2016’s most memorable films!
Besides containing strong writing, visuals, and sheer eroticism, THE HANDMAIDEN delivers four fantastic performances from two actresses and two actors. Kim Tae-Ri and Kim Min-Hee generate astounding chemistry together and are the main thrust of what makes this film work as a whole. HANDMAIDEN could easily be examined as a “girl power” story crossed with a twisted Korean thriller. Tae-Ri’s Sook-Hee provides some unexpected likability towards her thief protagonist, starting out as despicable and ultimately winning the viewer over.
However, Kim Min-Hee effectively steals the show as naïve, innocent Lady Hideko…and effectively becomes the story’s main focus during the disturbing second act. Ha Jung-Woo provides some comic relief as hard-to-read antagonist Count Fujiwara. Though he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, Cho Jin-Woong is super creepy as the ultimate dirty old man character in white-haired, black-tongued Uncle Kouzuki. These stellar performers bring the complex story and believable emotions to life on the screen.
THE HANDMAIDEN is another great film by a great filmmaker who already has a number of great films under his belt. This erotic thriller is sensual, intense, captivating and all sorts of other impressive-sounding adjectives that you can think of. Though I do have a nitpick with one minor plot hole (which might not bother other viewers as much as it bugged me), this is (95%) cinematic storytelling at its finest. THE HANDMAIDEN is recommended for viewers who want adult-oriented, mature entertainment and don’t mind graphic sex and dark undertones thrown in for good measure.