The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden ★★★★

The Handmaiden subverts the male gaze through its surface level erotica and the darker elements of its subject matter, carrying a much deeper and vehemently pro-(queer)women and staunchly anti-libertinism core message. Plot details will not be divulged here; since, as with any other Park Chan-wook film, it’s best to go into this as sparsely informed as possible. What I will speak on however, is the unmitigated technical and thematic brilliance with which Park—with rather startling ease—concocted this film. Let’s start with the camerawork: fluid, masterfully staged and nimbly light on its feet; diaphanous even. Park and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon meld zoom, focus, tracking and static shots seamlessly together; the result is nothing short of scintillating. Also, per usual with a Park film, the sound design is perfection. So richly detailed, subtle at times, but jarringly sonorous in others. Then we have the set and costume design which, to spare superfluous description, are beautiful. Locations as well, are utilized to their full potential. When combined with all of the aforementioned elements, the atmosphere and mise en scène of the film are discernibly and sensorially palpable in every sound and frame.

Structurally, thematically and idiosyncratically Park Chan-wook in just about every way imaginable; The Handmaiden feels like his true master stroke as a filmmaker. A culmination of everything I love about his work. Extremities and narrative zigzags turned up so high he broke the damn knob. If I had to pick one nit, it would be that it runs a tad too long, though I have to say that not once was I bored or growing weary of the story. I was invested from beginning to end, I just think maybe some of the expository sequences could have been told in a manner more swiftly and expediently. There are totally valid critiques that I’ve read of this movie in regards to how graphically sexual it is, but they are subjective ones, in my opinion. They may not be for everyone, and I was admittedly a bit jolted and surprised by some of these scenes, but you can’t deny the technical mastery with which they are shot and executed, as well as the intent of them being (I think) non-problematic, in fact, quite the opposite. Regardless of personal stance, much respect is due to the cast for taking on such demanding roles, specifically the two lead actors (Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee).

Highly recommended, but proceed with caution. This won’t be for everyone and it’s not one I’d recommend getting the whole family together for. That being said, it’s one of the finest pieces of cinema I’ve seen released in recent memory; deserving of its insanely high average Letterboxd rating and the (mostly) consensus praise it has garnered. Please don’t kill me for not giving it a perfect score. I almost did, but it didn’t pack that profound punch required of such a mark on the first viewing. That could change though, as I’m sure this one gets better and better each time.

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