Björn Broekman’s review published on Letterboxd:
Park Chan Wooks world is as rich and visually stunning as always. With an impressive eye for detail he has crafted a film that's as twisted as it is beautiful. As always. But with The handmaiden he truly excells. Its probably the most Park Chan Wookian movie Park Chan Wook has made so far, while at the same time it's not. In many ways its far more subtle from his other work. While at the same time it's not.
The premise is already intruiging. Sookee's plan is to rob Lady Hideko from her fortune and to lock her up in an asylum. Lady Hideko is a heiress living a seperated existence, only accompanied by her tirannical uncle. To rob her, Sookee makes sure she will be hired as a maid in this huge and beautiful mansion where the lady lives. Trust must be gained first to make sure everything will go according to plan. There is help from a Japanese count, a man willing to seduce the lady before taking the treasure hidden in her luxury prison. But things soon become more complex when real love and passion get in the way.
It's an already exciting way to start a story, and while at first it seems the movie is not as fast paced as the brilliant trailer might suggest, its not boring for even a second.
It may take some time before you realize how batshit crazy, over the top twisted The Handmaiden actually is. But well, it really is batshit crazy, over the top twisted. Chan Wook uses pretty much every cinematic trick to fool or amaze you and wow, it works out so very well. As I mentioned earlier, in many ways The handmaiden is more subtle than you might expect from Korea's most "vengeful" director.
It was a masterstroke to give this unlikely tale a historical, yet undeniably relevant context. It's not just a well made film with twists and surprises only for the sake of being surprising. The depth behind it all is astonishing. Unlike the source material The handmaiden is based on, the writers chose to let it take place in a by Japan occupied Korea. In a time where men ruled over women and where freedom was not a sure thing. Themes like feminism, female sexuality and male tiranny couldn't be more fitting.
Soon after the Hitchcockian set up, the film goes through a gripping stage of romance, deception, manipulation and time shifting trickery. Every character has a very specific agenda. And very specific motivations. The writing is top notch. With well placed twists, great acting and by constantly adding new elements or unexpected points of view, the movie keeps being captivating throughout its 145 minute running time.
What's probably the most admirable thing about Chan Wooks magnum opus is that it has so many tonally shifts and still never loses anything on being gripping. It's all at once a romantic drama, a twisted thriller, a lesbian love story, a relevant insight in Korean history and a very, very black comedy. While the movie mostly holds a perfect balance between thriller and romance, Chan Wook was not totally able to move away from his more familiar style of filmmaking. Mostly within the final 15 minutes. Was this necesary? No. Is it necesarily a bad thing? The answer to that is also no.
The handmaiden will most likely make a lot of straights, bi sexuals and lesbians blush. It's a sensual and unbelievably sexy and horny film. The sex scenes are undeniably explicit. And very well made. Not tasteless though, the romance and the attention for visual detail never ever leaves the screen in those scenes. You almost wonder if those 2 beautiful actresses are even acting. They're so passioned. Everything is part of a layered character study, the sex scenes being a visual prove of the strong central relationship and of the thematics of the story.
It may sound cliched, the house as a character. But here it's without doubt the truth. The main character of the Handmaiden is the house. The cinematography is gorgeous. The beautiful mixture of Korean and European elements in both exterior and interior give the house a unique look, and it's not unlike a gothic ghost story. The exquisite camera movements and satisfyingly composed color schemes make it an incredibly lively whole. Those elements are the cherry on top and that way you'll get one of the richest cinematic experiences of the last decade.