English Title: The Handmaiden
Korean Title: 아가씨 (Agassi/Miss)
Director: Park Chan Wook
Screenplay: Chung Seo Kyung, Park Chan Wook
Starring: Kim Min Hee (On the Beach Alone at Night), Kim Tae Ri (Entourage), Ha Jung Woo (The Chaser), Jo Jin Woong (The Admiral)
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Duration: 167 mins (2:47:00)
Warnings: graphic violence, graphic sex, depictions of suicide, strong language
Release Date: 14 May 2016 (Cannes Film Festival), 1 June 2016 (South Korea), 14 April 2017 (General Release, UK)
Recommended For: Park Chan Wook enthusiasts, fans of sexual thrillers, people who like laughing and grimacing during one film
Not Recommended For: The faint of heart, conservative people
Full of ripe sexual tension, deviating plot twists, and scheming and witty characters The Handmaiden neatly ties together multiple genres, giving you the perfect Park Chan Wook film to leave you breathless.
Synopsis of The Handmaiden:
In Japanese-occupied Korea during the 1930s a young pickpocket, Sook Hee (Kim Tae Ri) is hired to become a maid for a mysterious Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min Hee) in a secluded house in the Korean countryside. She is hired by Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung Woo) to help trick the Lady to falling in love with him and to cheat her out of her money. Sook Hee and Izumi soon form a bond and a physically intimate relationship one another, complicating the entire plan.
Meanwhile, Izumi’s uncle (Jo Jin Woong) plans to marry Izumi himself, something that she has been aware of for many years. In his large library he and Izumi practice their reading, but underneath this there is a dark hobby.
The Handmaiden combines plot twists, sex, violence, and mystery to create a masterful thriller that will leave the audience questioning what the real story was.
Park Chan Wook has become a popular name amongst film lovers in the West, not only for his exploration in graphic sexuality and violence in films like Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, but also for the way he presents humour and romance amongst such a backdrop. When these aspects are rolled in between scenes of sex and violence they feel natural to the characters and plot. The Handmaiden excels at this far more than his previous films.
Sook Hee and Izumi:
The film focuses largely on the relationship between the two lead women: Sook Hee, and Lady Hideko. The formality that fluctuates (using Japanese when in the presence of others, and Korean when they’re alone) creates more intimacy between the two. It also frames their relationship amongst the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s. Formality, language, dress, and status are all
With plenty of head spinning moments during the film that revolve around their “lovers” status the question of whether it’s a real or not because something of a complicated matter. Are they together because they have a genuine attraction, or is it to escape from the seclusion and loneliness of being a lady and a pickpocket? There are arguments for both situations laid out in the film for the audience to make up their own minds on that part. However, it is clearly based on lust and manipulation between the two, with small interactions of getting to know one another, that draws them.
Regarding the sex scenes, they feel awfully like a rip off from Blue is the Warmest Colour. It’s more of a guide to “lesbian” sex for people unfamiliar with it, rather than portraying the intimateness Sook Hee and Izumi are creating. There’s a certain coldness to viewing sex between two people from a wide shot. Avoiding this is ultimately what Carol did so well, and why anyone labelling this a “queer” film will struggle to do so.
The Handmaiden is split in three riveting parts, and each tells a different angle of the story. It’s a clever way to tell the story of Sook Hee and Izumi that complicates the emotions of the film. The first part is shown and the viewers have sympathy for one character whilst seeing through the lens of the other. When we look at the other angle the opposite is true. The set up for the plot is similar to that of The Skin I Live In (2011) directed by Pedro Almodóvar. The Skin I Live In is another psychosexual thriller that incorporates queerness into its plot. It plays out the story in several parts to reveal more information in the end. The results in both films are exceptionally well done. There are hints but never explicitly so.
The subject matter of the film is controversial and upsetting, but is not organic from Park himself. Lifted from the The Fingersmith, a British novel, he has understood how to transfer one cultural taboo to another. The Victorian era of prudish behaviour underlay by perverted interests is now set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. The house incorporates all three countries into one as a reference to this fact.
Despite the dark subject The Handmaiden has moments of wit and humour. It’s these moments of laughter that contrast with everything else that draws the viewer in more. The characters are laughing, so the viewer can release too. It’s the buildup and release between the moments of violence that are executed well. It’s important to include, because it allows for variety and prevents the film from flatlining from too much of everything.
One of the key issues I have with the plot is that the violence is predominantly acted out by men. It’s easy to root for the women in the film when there are no redeemable male characters in the film, and it’s a lazy move on the part of the writers to have Sook Hee and Izumi the only ones to prove they’re worthy. This is a key issue when people discuss “feminist” or “strong” female characters. It’s not solely about creating a scenario where it’s men against women, but about dissecting why each character is complicated. Sook Hee is naive and Izumi has been abused, but what makes the Uncle and the Count so awful? We’re never given an explanation to these two.
As for the violence that you can often see in Park Chan Wook’s films, The Handmaiden is missing this. There’s no big moments of slashing or blood, or choreographed fight scenes. What Park does instead is leave most of the violence to your imagination, and makes the viewer come up with their own conclusions. When there is graphic violence in the film it’s frank and serves a purpose to explain characteristics of those at the hand of it. This is the strongest point for The Handmaiden and shows Park’s growth as a director and understanding the balance of violence in a film.
In fact, the best scene in the film is violent. But it’s one that is an expression of anger towards something non-human and without the gore we’ve seen from Park in his previous films. The anger feels real and is something most viewers can understand. The character is taking action in their own way. It’s fantastic.
The cinematography in the film is astonishing. The static shots, the pans, the dollying are all executed superbly in the film to leave you either breathless from the scenery or actions. Each setting is full of amazing detail and richness that it’s difficult to criticise. The imagery of Victorian, Korean, and Japanese culture flows together exceptionally well together. The clothes, buildings, and gardens have a lot of texture to them. There are contrasts between the rainy, gloomy old life Sook Hee had, and the rich and summery look of where Izumi lives. All of this creates an environment that audiences can fully invest themselves in. To seclude themselves away from the real world in the beautiful house on screen.
The Handmaiden has many exceptional points in the film. A common complaint I’ve heard is that it moves too slowly, that nothing happens, but that’s the essence of the story. It’s about peeping into the lives of three people. There’s suspense, mystery, and lust. You can’t create those things with fast cuts and a condensed story.
The weakest points I found with the film is that in the end we’re to support two of the characters in what they’ve accomplished. It feels empty. Their relationship is based on lust and little else and the other moments they share away from sex meaning very little.
However, whilst watching it I found myself not wanting it to end. The new angles of the story added freshness and new perceptions to what we had seen before. Even revisiting the same scenes had new angles so our interpretations were skewed once again. This is why I will have to give it four stars.
Reviewer’s note: If the relationship between Sook Hee and Izumi had been more physically intimate and less sexually so this could have easily have beaten Carol as my favourite film, since it combines all of the things I love about film. The Handmaiden is an almost perfect combination of Carol, The Skin I Live In, Edgar Wright and Park Chan Wook films in one. It does help, however, that Gain sings the only lyrical song found in the film.