Cinestudio Preview: "The Handmaiden" Brings the Bizarre

4 min read


COURTESY OF (from top), The Handmaiden is a gorgeous and elaborate revenge story.
The Handmaiden is a gorgeous and elaborate revenge story.

The Handmaiden premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival to a standing ovation and glowing reviews. The film is a Japanese import from director Chan-wook Park, the mind behind 2003’s Oldboy.
Set in Imperial Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea, The Handmaiden tells its story in three parts. The first section of the film is seemingly the most straightforward. A poor Korean twenty-something named Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is swept into the scheme of a con-artist. The con: she must pose as the personal handmaiden to the beautiful Japanese Heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Once she has gained the trust of her mistress, Sook-Hee must do all that she can to make sure that Lady Hideko falls in love with a visiting nobleman- none other than the con-man himself. Once the scammer can convince Hideko to elope from the protection of her book-collecting uncle, then the Lady’s fortune can be divided up, and Hideko can be tossed in a madhouse for her trouble.
At first, Sook-He feels little guilt about her role in the deception. She does not care for the silken trappings and rigid tea-times of the place to which she is going. She knows nothing about the mesmerizing and outwardly chaste Lady Hideko. After all, Sook-Hee’s mother was a renowned thief. Lying ought to come naturally to her. But when she actually enters into the service of the wealthier woman, a princess in all but name, something changes.
As the relationship between Hideko and her new handmaiden begins to warm to friendship, Sook-Hee begins to feel the first signs of guilt affect the plan. Then as the two women begin to feel an unforeseen romance blooming between them, throwing Hideko into an asylum for her fortune feels less and less achievable to Sook-He. This romantic aspect of the film is brilliant, even independent of the rest of the work. The Handmaiden owes much to earlier milestones like Blue is the Warmest Color. Only in the last minutes of part one does the full weight of the film’s first great twist come to light.
Director Chan-Wook Park spends the first hour of his magnificent film telling the audience a story, and then spends the next hour smashing it. The Handmaiden’s second act reveals all of the intricacies hidden through the first, and shows how much more complicated the real story is than what it originally seemed. In this way, what appeared at first to be a simple mystery story deepens into a romance, until it is eventually revealed to be a fascinating, funny and disturbing psychosexual labyrinth.
Most of The Handmaiden is set in the breathing, misty lawns of a Japanese mansion. Each of its angles, breezeways and corridors feels familiar by the third act- it is a truly vivid location. Park employs sublime and balanced cinematography that makes the pacing of the film feel as natural as breathing, but heightens drama to towering levels. He’s not afraid of depravity, but instead runs headlong into the territories of weirdness that might make some viewers turn their heads or laugh out loud. Park takes these chances with the knowledge that each will fit, somehow, into the end product. There are moments in The Handmaiden where things take a turn for the truly bizarre, and nothing is so satisfying.
The Handmaiden is layered with surprises and shocks, some of them confounding, and all of them electrifying. Some filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan seem to worship the twist, respecting its power and generally saving it until the final minutes of a movie. The writer of The Handmaiden seems to see them more as necessary doorways through which the world of the movie becomes clearer the rules become more defined, and the truth seems somehow closer.
By the end of the film, our heads are spinning. But we see the full arch of the complete and true story for the first time, and can understand how satisfyingly fresh it is. The Handmaiden will be shown at Cinestudio from Sunday Dec. 4 to Monday Dec. 7.

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