The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden ★★★★½

Endlessly twisty, thrilling, and unrelentingly sexy, The Handmaiden has quickly skyrocketed to one of the great surprises of last year for me. I adored this movie entirely, picking up on clever themes Park Chan-wook seamlessly weaves into this gorgeously crafted feature.

Identity is a major theme here, as evidenced not only by the sexual awakening onscreen here, but also in the use of titles, names, and language. In updating the Victorian Era novel upon which this is based, The Handmaiden uses two conflicting languages, Korean and Japanese, each represented in different font colors, to emphasize the chasm between characters. The lady, Izumi Hideko, Japanese, resorts to the Korean language as some kind of escape. She is bored with her own language, and with her own life, and searches endlessly for another in the limited ways she possibly can. The ceaseless bleeding in and out of these languages presents a culturally aware space, but also one that acknowledges the inner thoughts of its characters realized externally.

Duplicity is in full force here, in a movie that takes the idea of a plot twist to new extremes, each scene brimming with new revelations, often reinforced by repetition of key scenes that bring new, exciting information to light. Each repetition is a flamboyant piece of told-you-so from Park, who seems to delight in the cleverness of his set pieces and storytelling. But when his qualities are all this good, it's hard not to shrug the potential pretentiousness of his story and direction off; I certainly didn't see any of the reveals coming, and I applaud the confidence with which he directs. Gasps in this movie abound, and nearly all are earned, an endlessly deceitful, engaging exploration of lies and how they affect lives.

But loaded just beneath this twisty, dirty story is a sweet, tender love affair, albeit one told in twisty, dirty ways. The Handmaiden runs the risk of churning its own story into one of nearly pornographic delights, but for all the sensual, arousing imagery on display, it takes the forbidden love between its leads deadly seriously, imbuing them with vitality and life, cautious and reckless, trapped between rash lust and restrained politeness. The point is not that these women are having a lesbian affair, the point is that they fulfill the only pure, caring love in the film, the remainder of the characters horny, sex-obsessed shells of men. Hideko's uncle is a collector and lover of rare books, we are told, but we soon discover these books are nothing more than juvenile smut passed off as worthy literature. Sex is corruptible, says The Handmaiden, because it is the only true motivator. For all Ha Jung-woo's character's insistence that he is not motivated by sex, his actions reveal a darker inner nature.

And all this beauty and cleverness is not to mention the look of the film itself. My God, what a gorgeous picture. The fluidity of Park's shots, composition and sequencing set to rhythms of great poetry, all lend to a breathtaking cinematic experience, at once grandiose and intimate. I hate to write about the mise-en-scene too much, mostly because it's a dumb, pretentious film school word, but in this case I cannot help myself. So many brilliant moments of what is seen and what is hidden, including one in which the lady shows Kim Tae-ri's Sook-he her written name on a sheet of paper obscured by a column, thus reinforcing the theme of lack of identity. The production design is immaculate, pointedly detailed, and serves a real purpose. Plants and payoffs abound, an object or location one moment meaning one thing, the next quite another.

A few moments didn't quite work for me, but beyond these I find little fault with The Handmaiden. A messy story told cleanly, with more depth than any movie this sexy has any right to be, this was really a remarkable, worthwhile watch.

A-