Park Chan-wook is one of my favorite directors. The Korea auteur is a master of style, detail, atmosphere and creativity, resulting in films that often leave a lasting impression. Known mostly for his Vengeance trilogy, with Oldboy being the most famous of the three, Park turns his sights on something quite different than his usual fare, an adaptation of a romantic drama novel set in Victorian England.
With his new film The Handmaiden, Park has transported Sarah Water’s story to 1930s Korean and Japan. The film follows Sookee, a tattered thief who is hired as a handmaiden to a secluded Japanese heiress out in the coutnryside. The Heiress, Hideko, lives on a large estate with her Uncle who controls her existence. Unbeknownst to Hideko, Sookee was really sent in to help a Japanese Count, Count Fujiwara, seduce Hideko and rob her of her wealth. Everything seems to be going according to plan until Sookee and Hideko come to realize that there is an emotional connection. What starts off as a tale of lies and greed evolves into a story of love lost and found but simultaneously becomes one of deception and betrayal.
After his English language debut Stoker disappointed, though it was a beautiful film to watch, Park’s return to his native language proves to be both wonderful and tiresome. This nearly two and a half hour romantic drama is full of all of Park’s most notorious trademarks with only the brutal violence really missing (except for one scene at the end). Instead, he trades it for explicit sex of the lesbian kind.
Park’s films always have an air of mystery and deception, it’s why his movies land such impactful punches. The Handmaiden utilizes this signature move a couple of times and its fun when it happens; the only problem is that it doesn’t feel that shocking for the audience. When the story starts to unravel and we begin to see how the plot begins to change and develop, you’re curious as to where it will go but you can’t help feel a little disenchanted. I think that because of the melodramatic acting, it caused me to distance myself a bit from the story. I was more interested in the twisted exploits of the Uncle than the scheming of Sookee, Count Fujiwara, and Hideko.
While the twists and turns are what keep you somewhat engaged with the film, it’s sexual nature of the film that will be remembered. If it even gets a rating, this NC-17 film has one of the most intense lesbian scenes I’ve seen in a feature film to date. It’s a passionate scene that’s shown to us in pieces and then in its entirety as the film progresses and secrets are revealed. Some may say it’s a long scene but, in my opinion, it actually works for the film even if it feels like it belongs on a softcore porn channel (at least it is shot better).
The biggest issue with the film is its runtime. Sure, I could watch the beauty that I witnessed on screen all day, but I don’t need to. There’s a lot that could be trimmed out and, if the bits were, I think we’d actually have a feature that’s just a bit more compelling and exciting, which is a shame since almost everything else about the film is top notch.
Superbly staged and rather melodramatic, The Handmaiden is a twisty tale of lust and greed that pulls you in and keeps you in your seat, but the string that attaches you to the film isn’t as taught as you’d like it be for a Park Chan-wook film. For fans of Park Chan-wook this isn’t a return to peak form, but it shows an artist evolving creatively as well as one slowly finding his footing again after a transitional disappointment. Bottom line, even with its flaws this is still worth a watch.