This might not be the most useful review of The Handmaiden. Because this review is informed by the experience of a person who did not have an inaccurate idea of what The Handmaiden would be, but a distinctly incomplete one. Also I watched it in a very small theater with three very elderly couples, and have no way of knowing exactly how much impact those…interesting circumstances had.
Here is everything I knew going in: The Handmaiden is the newest film from Park Chan-Wook, adapted from a novel called Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. The pun of the title has been maintained, bless, but the setting has been rather brilliantly transposed from Victorian Britain to 1930s Korea, when the country was under Japanese rule. The cinematography is by frequent Park collaborator Chung Chung-Hoon, who was the DP for Stoker. Stoker was actually the only Park Chan-Wook movie I had seen; this would become relevant while watching The Handmaiden. And finally: Harold, they’re lesbians.
The first thing I found out while watching it, is that Chung has done it again. I do not know how that man films greens this rich, but it’s extraordinary. And I actually do know a lot of this is him, not just the color correctors, because I’ve an audio engineer friend who saw the raw footage for Stoker as it was coming in to be processed, and was amazed at how pretty the colors already were. The Handmaiden was turning out to be another gorgeously shot movie, with a visual quality I’ve never seen outside of other Park/Chung projects. And so the movie tripped along doing its lush, stylized thing, the story dark but Stoker-dark, with a Stoker sort of humor throughout. A rewarding fact quickly emerged, which was that even with some gross men circling around, the movie thinks they’re gross too, and thinks the two women at the center is the good part, the part we should focus on, the part to care about and root for.
Then a huge plot twist happened, my mouth dropped open in shock, the screen read “Part Two”, and that’s when I realized I was in for a RIDE.
Part Two gets wild. Part Two does this utterly fascinating thing where it goes over many of the events of the first part again, but this time from the POV of the other woman at the center of the story. We’ll be shown the same exact scene but from a literal new angle, often continuing on to show what we now realize was a very relevant development that had been hidden from us during the first part. This is totally brilliant. But something else is also getting amplified in Part Two, and that is the horror. Park Chan-Wook makes bold and violent and disturbing movies. Beautiful, highly elegant and composed, but horrifying. I had happened to watch one of his relatively milder ones, so hadn’t realized just how far he’ll go with creepy, cruel content, of a sort that made me start to feel like I do in the middle of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, when I wonder if I can even stand to keep watching this.
Very like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, in fact. The Handmaiden too is aesthetically dazzling, contrasts sexual atrocities with sexual love, and is very explicit in its depiction of both. The sex scenes between the women are striking in their length and nudity, but in a development on the other shocking sequences, in these what is uncensored is an expression of care and pleasure. The central narrative importance of the joy Hideko and Sookhee find in sleeping with each other is being told in the same bold, exaggerated language already established, heightened compositions giving way to heightened sex scenes — which is one of several elements at play that has me dubious that criticism of the movie’s “male gaze” is really the most accurate way to address what is going on here.
Anyhow, The Handmaiden is not even done yet — following the astonishing Part Two is Part Three. The twists keep flipping into place like the smoothly clicking lenses at the optometrist’s office, each time making a clearer image, a better image. And as the story came into full focus, that’s when I realized I was being led into yet another surprise: underneath all the display and deception, beats a truly romantic heart.