The Handmaiden is a tautly executed new thriller from Park Chan-wook.* Set in Japanese-occupied Korea, it tells the story of Sook-hee, a young woman who is hired to serve Lady Hideko, a woman who lives with her eccentric uncle in an isolated manor. But all is not what it seems; Sook-hee is secretly working with a conman, who wants to trick Hideko into marrying him so he can make off with her fortune.
Watching Sook-hee and Hideko’s relationship evolve is fascinating. While Sook-hee, a young woman who grew up in poverty with a criminal family, is initially thrilled at the chance of the huge pay-day, this changes when she meets Hideko. There is an immediate connection when the two women meet, and Sook-hee starts to question her role in the con. Both the leading ladies are phenomenal and have distinct challenges. Kim Tae-ri manages to make Sook-hee sympathetic, despite her plans to betray Hideko. And Kim Min-hee makes the reserved, mysterious Hideko accessible to the audience.
Park Chan-wook builds a tense atmosphere, making good use of the large house with its expansive grounds. It’s a beautiful film. The shots are all carefully constructed, and some of the framing is brilliant in ways that aren’t obvious until the film is over, and all the twists and turns have been revealed. This hindsight appreciation is just an added bonus; even without it, The Handmaiden has gorgeous cinematography, and features a stunning combination of Eastern and Western styles in the set and costumes. Their primary settings are the main creepy Victorian manor (are there any Victorian manors that aren’t creepy?), and its Japanese style wing. The costumes include beautiful Western evening gowns and evening clothes, kimonos, and some Korean style dress too. On top of amazing visuals, the sound design was fantastic. The score was always beautiful, but the film wasn’t overly reliant on it; in some scenes, there was a complete lack of score, which was very effective at creating tension.
The story creeps towards an inevitable finish, building a sense of quiet dread. But then something shifts, and it’s no longer the story you thought you knew. Even if you figured out the twists, watching the story unfold and the character relationships evolve is enjoyable. If I had to find a fault with The Handmaiden, it would be that the sex scenes border on gratuitous. (It’s not a huge deal, but don’t watch this movie with children or your parents and you should be fine).
All in all, The Handmaiden is an artfully crafted, suspenseful film that is centered around a beautiful and fascinating relationship between two complicated women. It’s a fantastic movie, and probably one of my favorite films of 2016.
*The dialogue is spoken in Korean and Japanese with subtitles, just so you know.