Park chan-wook is no stranger to delivering some of the best character studies that also pack a sense of sexual perversity, and pain within its seams. “The Handmaiden” is one of his most epic in scope dramas that also manages to be one of the most erotic romances I’ve seen in a while. “The Handmaiden” is pure ambition that succeeds in delivering something of a labyrinthian narrative of crime, salvation, and romance that begins as a simplistic drama. It takes a brilliant artist like chan-wook to handle a film that morphs in to various themes and experience various tonal changes without it completely falling apart, but Park chan-wook handles it by making each new turn around the corner absolutely suspenseful.
A period piece set in Japan Occupied Korea, we meet a conman named Count Fujiwara who hires a pick pocket and orphan named Sook-Hee. Sook-Hee is a young pick pocket who spends most of her life caring for other orphans with various other con artists. Fujiwara enlists the help of Sook-Hee to become the new maid of heiress Lady Hideko. Hideko is an isolated woman who spends her time locked in her massive mansion, and is forced to read twisted erotica for wealthy men who then bid for the literature. When Sook-Hee is hired under her, Fujiwara has a plan to marry Hideko, lock her in an asylum. and rob her of her fortune. Meanwhile he promises to reward Sook-Hee with immense riches that he gives to Hideko while courting her. But as Sook-Hee begins to bond with Hideko, things take an odd turn as they begin to bond. Director Park chan-wook spreads his epic tale in three chapters, devising a narrative that’s told through various angles.
“The Handmaiden” is very much a film that demands its audience watch most attentively. When they do they’ll be surprised to see how the director peels away at layers allowing us to experience certain powerful moments in entirely new lights. “The Handmaiden” takes great pains in establishing character and fully establishing motives to where two or three viewings will be a necessity to soak in the great nuances and subtle ideas he conveys. “The Handmaiden” is a beautiful movie with immense cinematography, but Park chan-wook is very crafty in taking very beautiful elements of nature and twisting them in to darker plot elements. This includes a particular cherry blossom tree, and a thorn bush. The world Sook-Hee is thrown in to is quite the unsettling landscape, filled with violence and torment, but she begins to unwittingly inject a sense of purity and passion that turns her job around gradually.
Park chan-wook is brilliant in conveying a subtle and quiet tale of running from pain and sadness, while injecting much of what makes his films stand out from every other auteur working today. There are some truly shocking moments, some excellent plot twists, and of course one of the most erotic sex scenes filmed in years. “The Handmaiden” is automatically an award worthy dramatic thriller, but the way Park chan-wook films his absolutely titillating moments of erotic bonding will likely keep audiences talking for months. “The Handmaiden” is a step outside of the norm for Park chan-wook. It’s a daring, entertaining, and absolutely compelling epic, and one that works on various levels of suspense, drama, and mystery.
Now In Theaters from Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures.