‘The Handmaiden’ is Chan-Wook Park’s Latest Masterpiece

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The Handmaiden

Few filmmakers can routinely traverse in the troubling territory and make masterpieces on the level of Korean director Chan-Wook Park. The latest cinematic masterpiece from Chan-Wook Park is The Handmaiden, a story of deceit steeped in sexuality that is endlessly engrossing as it uncovers the layers of its tale. Few films in 2016 are as lush visually and complex thematically as The Handmaiden, taking on matters of class and patriarchal control in of the year’s best films.

Unfolding in three parts that vary in perspective, The Handmaiden is about Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), a young girl from an infamous family of grifters. The Count (Jung-woo Ha), a deceitful man, hires Sookee as a handmaiden for the Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). The Count’s plan involves using Sookee to convince Lady Hideko to marry the Count so he can become the heir to her sizable fortune at which point the Count shall place Hideko into a mental asylum, keeping all the money for himself except for the payment to Sookee. The young Sookee travels to the expansive estate of Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), Hideko’s uncle that wishes to marry his young niece. An avid book collector, Kouzuki is a brutal and repellant man that uses the threat of violence to keep his niece under his control. However, nobody in The Handmaiden is who they appear, and the layers of distrust unravel in a series of stunning revelations.

The library of Kouzuki’s expansive estate consists of an expansive collection of bawdy stories, explicit in their S&M content. Lady Hideko has been groomed by Kouzuki from youth to be his future his bride, a subservient woman whose sole purpose is to steamily recite these sexual tales for the arousal of Kouzuki and his cadre of associates who get their kicks from these tales of chains and whips. This is just one aspect of The Handmaiden’s sexual content. The other aspect of the film’s ribald content is the emerging sexual relationship between Hideko and Sookee, one that unfolds explicitly on the screen. Their relationship, like every other one in the film, is built upon deceit and their manner of expressing this sexual attraction seems as if it’s been informed by the stories that Hideko has been forced to read since her youth, tales of sexual pleasure for and by men.

Much of the film’s story centers round forgeries. Kouzuki cherishes his collection of explicit sexual stories and has hired the Count to create intricate forgeries for Kouzuki to sell to book collectors so the lecherous old man doesn’t have to part with his prized possessions. This is a strong theme that runs through every frame of Chan-Wook Park’s luscious film, with nobody being honest about themselves, their motivations, or even their social origins and standing. These are all characters rooted heavily in lies, untruths that are deeply rooted within the very soul of everyone involved. Just one part of what makes The Handmaiden so stunning to behold is watching each untruth slowly revealed as each forgery is exposed.

In adapting the novel by Sarah Walters, Chan-Wook Park and co-writer Seo-Kyung Chung have crafted one of the most engaging films to grace the screen this year, shifting perspective and giving depth to every one of The Handmaiden’s ample twists and turns. If anyone dares even suggesting divulging the slightest details as to these numerous twists, do yourself a favor and completely cut them out of your social circles.

There’s probably not another film released this year that has such a lush visual style. The cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung is vibrant, with the beautiful colors of the production and costume design playing counter to the film’s ugly story of deceit and betrayal. Chan-Wook Park’s director never goes over the top, as Park and Chung craft a film with a somewhat tempered visual style that impresses but never distracts.

The Handmaiden is the type of movie that works its way into your brain and won’t escape for days after viewing. It’s a masterpiece of deceitful characters that goes deeper and deeper into the characters’ psyches as the layers are uncovered. Chan-Wook Park’s latest masterpiece is a film that really fire on so many different levels of brilliance – incredibly sexy in some moments, astoundingly disgusting in others; strongly dramatic and then building in unbearable tension. Amazingly, The Handmaiden won’t be Korea’s submission for this year’s Oscars, which means that one of the year’s absolute masterpieces won’t be in awards contention. Then again, bestowing a level of class and distinction on The Handmaiden might just wind up being an ironic stroke that is better left unrealized. Chan-Wook Park is one of the great filmmakers of his generation, and The Handmaiden is just his most recent masterstroke.

The Handmaiden
  • Overall Score
5

Summary

A stunning piece of filmmaking from Chan-Wook Park, The Handmaiden is a brilliant story of deceit, unfolding in a variety of perspectives, that ranks among one of 2016’s best films.

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