Non-English movie trailers will sometimes go very far out of their way to hide the fact that their film isn’t in English. The trailer for Park Chan-wook’s latest film, The Handmaiden, follows this tradition, and is incomprehensible as a result. It is, however, one of the most striking trailers of the year, and promises a pretty visually distinct piece of film. I’m happy to say that, while The Handmaiden is not what I expected based on the trailer alone, it lives up to that promise, marrying arresting film-making with a twisty narrative.
Park Chan-wook’s films, in a way, feel like a distant cousin of Quentin Tarantino’s (who championed his breakout, Oldboy). The Handmaiden at it’s best contains similar stylistic touches, such as denoted act breaks and nonlinear narratives, and it’s plot certainly has a lot in common with Western con movies. Effectively, the movie concerns itself with the relationship between three characters in 1930s Japan-occupied Korea: wealthy isolated heiress Hideko, grifter posing-as-noble Fujiwara, and petty thief turned handmaid Sook-hee. Fujiwara enlists Sook-hee to be his eyes and ears as he tries to marry Hideko from under her abusive uncle’s nose, but Sook-hee and Hideko soon find themselves drawn more towards each other. It’s fun to watch it all unfold, although those expecting a mind-blowing twist in the vein of Oldboy may be let down; while the movie is quite far from traditional, its plot machinations are fairly traditional (although very engaging).
What pushes the film up quite a bit is Park’s style. Most of the film takes place in Hideko’s mansion, which crosses English and Japanese architecture much like Park wears his English and Asian filmmaking influences on his sleeve. The movie threatens to be a haunted house flick briefly, and many times evokes Park’s early gothic drama Stoker. But Park and production designer Ryu Seong-hee give the film a vibe of its own, selling the oppressive opulence of Hideko’s life. Moments of pitch-black humour help to cut the tension effectively, including the best noose gag ever filmed. Where Park’s instincts falter a bit is when it seemingly exploits the Sook-hee/Hideko relationship for pure titillation value. To its credit, even the exploitation isn’t without thematic relevance; a subset of characters in the movie are connoisseurs of artful smut, and the closing moments cement the idea that Park set out to make exactly that. But the narration and interaction sells the attraction between the two well enough, which leaves the explicit scenes feeling a bit superfluous.
Even if a bit exploitative, The Handmaiden is a sharp, stylistic, and engaging piece of liar’s fiction. It successfully creates a universe of its own and fills it with memorable images, characters, and moments. It has plenty of bite, but also an underlying sweetness that’s a bit surprising from Park. I can’t wait to watch it again.
The Handmaiden [Agassi] (2016)
Dir. Park Chan-wook
Starring Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jim-woong Jo, and Jung-woong Ha
Rotten Tomatoes (94%)