[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The Handmaiden opens in limited release this Friday.]
Director Park Chan-wook seems to take great pleasure in unnerving his audience and challenging their expectations, and he succeeds yet again with his latest film, The Handmaiden. What begins as a con artist film slowly evolves into a seductive erotic thriller before taking on new twists and turns that are dark, grotesque, and even occasionally charming and funny. It’s a film that’s difficult to categorize because it also offers a lot to unpack, but it’s also constantly captivating thanks to the lush cinematography, winning performances, and thoughtful subtext. However, when it comes to that subtext, even Park has difficulty walking the line between criticizing the male gaze and indulging in it.
Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Sook-Hee (Tae Ri Kim) is a young swindler who is recruited by fellow criminal Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to run a con on heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Sook-Hee will serve as Hideko’s handmaiden and convince her to fall in love with the Count. After Hideko and the Count marry, the Count will have Hideko thrown into a madhouse and divide up her fortune amongst himself and Sook-Hee. However, the closer Sook-Hee and Hideko become, the harder it becomes for Sook-Hee to betray Hideko.
However, the film’s twists and turns expand far beyond its initial con, and this is a film that demands to be seen knowing as little possible about the specifics of the plot, especially beyond the first act. The further the film goes, the better its themes are realized, especially with regards to Hideko’s creepy uncle (Jin-woong Jo), who collects erotic literature and forces Hideko to read it to a male audience. In these moments, it looks like Park is expressly attacking the male gaze, and he skewers it brilliantly.
That’s part of what makes the sex scenes so troubling. I have no problem with erotica on screen, but here it works at cross-purposes to what Park is trying to accomplish with the rest of his movie. You can’t call out the uncle and his pals for being perverts and then have sex scenes that look like they’re designed to titillate. Admittedly, that’s a difficult line to walk—criticizing the male gaze doesn’t have to be a call for prudery, but it seems like Park went a bit overboard in depicting the sex scenes, and it undermines his point a bit.
Thankfully, it’s not enough to derail the film, an incredibly ambitious work that also tries to tackle identity, nationalism, language, deception, and gender. The Handmaiden is an incredibly rich work of cinema with a lovely score, gorgeous cinematography, and captivating performances from Tae Ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, and Min-hee Kim. It’s also a movie that would fit in nicely with Park’s trio of revenge pictures, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance.
The Handmaiden is best viewed knowing none of the twists and turns, and it’s a film I imagine will improve on repeat viewings. It’s thoughtful and complex while also being immensely entertaining, funny, dark, and disturbing. It’s the kind of masterful work we’ve come to expect from Park Chan-wook, and while the subtext can be a bit uneven at times with regards to the sex scenes, The Handmaiden still casts an enchanting spell.