One of the most playfully twisted filmmakers of his or frankly any era, Park Chan-wook is a naughty boy who enjoys playing games with his audience. Though he specializes in genre fare, Park’s films are never predictable or trapped within cliché or formula. He gleefully mixes tone, delivering nasty thrillers filled with oddball humor. Park’s latest feature, ‘The Handmaiden’, is both a departure and a movie that only he could have possibly made.
It opens as a romance that feels like it might be the softest and most gentle feature the man behind ‘Oldboy’ has yet to deliver. Of course, that’s all just a ruse. Park only plays nice so that the inevitable twists sting with that much more power and intensity. This is a work by a master filmmaker, even if this particular entry in his growing filmography will likely be remembered as a minor effort.
At first, Park seems to go out of his way to trick audiences with false starts. The prologue sets up a classic Gothic chiller (potentially haunted mansion included), before shifting into something completely different. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is our hero of sorts, a lifelong thief who accepts a job as a handmaiden for a wealthy and isolated Japanese heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). That’s only part of the story. Sook-hee was brought into the gig by a conman (Ha Jung-woo) to help convince Hideko that she has fallen in love with him. The plan is that he will put Hideko into an asylum as soon as they’re married, so he can take her fortune and spread the riches to the handmaiden. However, Sook-hee starts to develop feelings for Hideko and they might even be mutual.
For about an hour, the movie appears to be a departure for Park. While the filmmaker’s patented dark humor is very much in play and the production is lushly crafted, it feels rather straightforward and, aside from some overt eroticism, even rather tame. Then a big twist arrives about an hour into the movie and, rather than moving forward, Park doubles back and replays the first half of the movie again – only this time the perspective is different and the world infinitely more perverse than things initially seemed. At this point, it becomes clear that Park Chan-wook is very much still operating in his comfort zone and all of the discomforting violence that we expect from the filmmaker is surely on the way (as well as some tentacle imagery that isn’t exactly easy to forget).
‘The Handmaiden’ may require a certain level of patience and trust from viewers, but it’s a wild ride in a manner that will please anyone who generally enjoys Park Chan-wook’s nasty treats. This is the work of a filmmaker in complete command of his audience, toying with their expectations and deliberately leading them down false paths. The structural games, dark humor and playful perversions draw comparison to the work of Brian De Palma. Park has always shared similarities with De Palma, but ‘The Handmaiden’ is so similar that it practically feels like homage. A sense of playful irony keeps viewers at a distance, even though all the expertly crafted technique is designed to pull them into the story and guide their perceptions. It’s a movie you watch through a certain distance while still trapped inside the filmmaker’s games. Some might find that irritatingly manipulative, but others will be elated.
Performances are strong throughout, production values are gorgeous, and the cinematography seems to be composed exclusively of beauty shots. ‘The Handmaiden’ represents a filmmaker working at the peak of his technical abilities. If the movie lacks the depth of Park’s best work, that hardly means that it’s devoid of meaning. While it’s difficult to discuss themes without giving away the tricky narrative twists, Park toys with the nature of how men gaze upon and objectify women while still indulging in that himself through a series of surprisingly graphic sex scenes. Unkind viewers might claim that the filmmaker is confused, but others may also see it as sly commentary and even a joke with a punchline that doesn’t arrive until the final scene.
Such is the pleasure of ‘The Handmaiden’, a movie that coasts by on giddy cinematic sensation, yet is completely self-aware of all the tricks and slyly comments on them. If the name Park Chan-wook means anything to you, seek out ‘The Handmaiden’ immediately. You won’t be disappointed, especially when all the layers of his latest cinematic mind game are revealed.