Park Chan-Wook Gives Us the Lesbian Gothic Psychosexual Romantic Thriller Of Our Dreams with 'The Handmaiden'
I would hope that, if you’re reading this review right now, you’re a fan of Pajiba. You might disagree with our universally correct opinions on food from time to time, but generally speaking, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume the majority of you have a base level of appreciation for who we are and what we represent: Championing the wild and weird among pop culture, thirsting over hot folk, and having an all-encompassing hatred of the Republican Babadook.
This review is where I’d need to cash in on a few of the goodwill points that we’ve hopefully accumulated over the years. Because I need you to see The Handmaiden. But I can’t tell you anything about it.
Here’s what I can say:
The Handmaiden is the newest movie from South Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook, whose filmography includes such fucked-up masterpieces as Thirst, Stoker, and his most popular, Oldboy. The Handmaiden is based on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, though the movie makes many substantial changes to its source material, including but not limited to moving the action from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, during Japanese occupation.
Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), a young thief, teams up with a conman known as the Count (Ha Jung-woo) to swindle an heiress, Hideko, out of her fortune. Sook-Hee will pose as Hideko’s handmaiden and convince the naive, isolated noblewoman to elope with the Count, after which he’ll chuck her in a mental institution and take her money. Except things get complicated when Sook-Hee begins to fall for Hideko herself. You get all that in the first half hour or so. Everything that comes after—and a lot comes after—I really shouldn’t say anything about.
The Handmaiden is a lesbian psychological drama… sort of.
It’s a psychosexual revenge thriller… sort of.
It’s a lush, Gothic period romance… sort of.
It’s one of the best, most unexpected movies of the year, and it’s one where you should know absolutely nothing about it going in, which obviously makes reviewing it quite difficult. Seriously, stop reading this. Right now.
For those who need more convincing: For all Park Chan-Wook has built his reputation in large part on his commitment to the off-putting, squirm-inducing side of life, The Handmaiden is… surprisingly romantic, actually. Even sweet, at times. (There’s a particular scene that takes place about three-fifths of the way through in a library that I’m thinking of.) Early reviews out of Cannes labelled the film a “lurid lesbian potboiler” and “sexy and depraved,” and that’s true. This is a wonderfully sexy film, and one with no shortage of freaky perversion.
But it’s also Park Chan-Wook’s most enjoyable film, by far. Oldboy’s a fucking masterpiece, but it’s not entertaining, per se—it’s more a “watch once and then drink to scrub the knowledge of what you just saw from your mind”-type thing. One gets the impression someone bet Park Chan-Wook he couldn’t make a crowd-pleaser, and he said “fuck you” and turned around and made this—decidedly NC-17, rife with sex and violence (a lot of the former, not so much of the latter, at least compared to some of his other stuff), without the rough edges we’ve come to expect from his films sanded off. But, at the same time, fun. Funny, even. There’s a moment near the end, during the film’s most brutal scene, where the camera cuts away to an octopus in a tank. It’s a delightfully meta troll moment, like Park Chan-Wook is winking at the audience: “I know you know who I am. And I know you think you know where this is going to go. We’re not going to go there. But I see you.”
I have watched all 145 minutes (still six minutes shorter than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) of The Handmaiden twice, and both times, I did not want it to end. It’s gorgeous, it’s surprising, it’s hot as hell, and there’s a subversive undercurrent about men’s attempts to control female sexuality. It stayed with me in a way that hasn’t happened since Snowpiercer, which admittedly was only three years ago, but still: I’m going to go out on a limb and say The Handmaiden is my favorite movie of the year so far. Sorry, Love and Friendship. We’ll always have tiny green balls.
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