The Handmaiden Review : Lust, Caution, and Commotion.

October 23, 2016

“For all those distinctive qualities, The Handmaiden is actually a commemoration of the art of storytelling itself.”

The Handmaiden is a hundred and forty minutes long art of deception. It’s a kind of movies that plays with your perspective. A story within stories that will have you engaged into a mind trick, challenge your assumptions and get you competed with your own intellectual.

It’s an idiosyncratic triumph of combining two opposite qualities. A celebration of paradox:  West and East; perverse and prose; art and entertainment; whimsical and melancholy; erotic and erratic. All at once. And all of those contradictions are beautifully blended into a puzzle narrative. You will wander its flow, until, at certain points, you may find the parapet. It’s the time when you will get your “aha moment”. For that, you will be smiling ear to ear and proud to yourself.

For all those distinctive qualities, The Handmaiden is actually a commemoration of the art of storytelling itself.

Every main character in this movie will tell you a story. There are four versions of the story here. Stories about acquisitiveness, resentment, lust, caution and commotion.

At first, we see the story of a young Korean woman set in 1930’s. It’s a rainy day and South Korea occupied by Japanese. We see some Japanese military troops are marching in a small village. The young woman is seen standing in front of a house, under the rain, where she faces some females who cry over her. She hands a baby to them. One of her female colleagues says that she should’ve been the one who’d be in her position. Not the young woman who hands the baby over. It’s an emotional dramatic scene that set our assumptions that this would be a story about a young woman who was forced to be a handmaiden. But, actually, it’s not.

The handmaiden’s name is Sooke (Kim Tae-ri). She’s a small woman with the innocent face. Soon after that scene, she’s sent to a mysterious mansion in the countryside. The mansion is owned by Kouzouki (Cho Jin-woong), a collector of antic and rare books. Sooke’s duty is to serve his niece, a beautiful and enigmatic young lady whose name Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Hideko is not just Mr. Kouzouki’s niece. In a mansion whose fusion architecture between European and Japanese style, Mr. Kouzouki prepares Lady Hideko to be his heiress and his future wife. The mansion has Japanese influences. There are sliding doors and a sakura tree in its pretty garden. But the front building is Victorian. So is the wallpaper. Mr. Kouzouki may speak Japanese, but he keeps the old Victorian tradition by isolating Lady Hideko in the mansion alone for himself, until (one day) he marries her.

The Handmaiden is directed by Park Chan-wook, whose magnificent body of works from Oldboy to Stoker. He has distinct traits for presenting his characters with goofy excess and caricature in both movement and dialogues. He also loves to play around with revenge, violent, black humor and unexpected revelations in his films. Chan-wook tends to bring abnormal sexual relationships in his films, as a satire for moral consequences and the expression of freedom. So, we know this movie ain’t no ordinary story about a handmaiden and her master.

Sooner, we will see another male character. He’s Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a debonair nobleman with many talents and plenty of charms. He gives Lady Hideko drawing lessons, but he sure has a hidden agenda and ambition, seducing her and slowly convincing her to be involved in an elopement. His ultimate goal is to claim her fortune. It turns out that Sooke is his ally. Her innocence look deceives us. Together, Count Fujiwara and Sooke arranged a well-planned scenario. They agreed to split the money they conceive, after sending Lady Hideko to an asylum.

Everything seems to be on plan until one day Sooke gets trapped in her own lust. It’s started with her curiosity and her demeanor towards Lady Hideko’s luxury. It results in a forbidden love and a betrayal.

As the story goes, things get more complicated and more facts will be unveiled. We’re just being eye-witnesses. We will be deceived, informed, twisted but finally, relieved.

Feels Like An Elegant And Artful Calligraphy Paintings 

All those illustrations are only a half of the whole movie. Not even close. There are so many doors and layers in this movie I would not dare to open to you since it would ruin your cinematic experience. Beneath its steady stream and eloquent back-and-forth storytelling, narrated by Sooke’s and Hideko’s voices, The Handmaiden is full of complex and unpredicted characters.

The Handmaiden is based on Sarah Winter’s 2002 novel, Fingersmith and adapted into a screenplay by Chan-wook himself and Chung Seo-kyung. The novel was set in Victorian London, whereas the movie takes palace in South Korea during Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945.  It’s a perfect adaptation, without losing the Victorian touch of manners and behaviors, blended perfectly with Japanese and Korean cultures and told in both languages. You can sense the shift between the two languages. You will not get lost in translation.

But there’s also Shakespearean nuance here and there. Like when Lady Hideko tells an erotic and voyeuristic story as if it’s a fan-fiction version of Romeo and Juliet for Literotica audiences. Or perhaps the sensual-grotesque version of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. The story involves a poison that will get us intoxicated and seduced, with an additional creepy wooden sex doll as an instrument.

Chan-wook brings some explicit and sadistic love scenes here. Like he once did in Oldboy, for example. But they are not vulgar in any sense. They’re beautifully choreographed and more as an act of curiosity rather than an act of bestiality. Like when Sooke and Lady Hideko made love for the first time, they were exploring and observing to each other bodies. Later, the love scenes are being doubled. This time they are as the expression of freedom.

Sooke and Lady Hideko serve as Chan-wook social commentary to the man’s world. Both of them live in a world where they must obey what men order to them. What they do in this movie is the epitome of rebellion. They realize that they are the owner of their bodies, sexuality, and destiny. They have their own rights to do everything they want to do.

Sooke represents South Koreans, and Lady Hideko is the personification of Japan. In here, they’re both equal. There’s no the hunter and the prey. There’s no the imperialist and the subject. It is perfectly in the context of what Chan-wook’s trying to tell us by moving the set of the story into Japan colonization upon South Korea. A non-subtle feminist statement from Chan-wook to the concept of imperialism. Allowing the story to pass an idea of Koreans trying to untie themselves off of Japanese and get a better life and social ranks.

The Handmaiden’s prolific puzzled narrative becomes an irrefutable fact of Chan-wook’s skillful creative decision in using match-cut and cross-cutting editing between two movements. The decision allows him to connect settings and time periods and they bring us to an assumption as they’re a part of continuum of time.

There are scenes where Sooke and Hideko went out of the closed-off boundaries of mysterious mansion Hideko has lived most of her life, to a joyous freedom at the outside in a fast cut between their side-by-side movements. That scenes show us what they’re feeling after being trapped in a golden cage for so long. Especially, for Hideko. The camera shots her facial expression. From the moment of hesitation into the feeling of liberation.

Chan-wook doesn’t shy away from the fetishism as his trademark here. There’s a fetish and pervert character represented by Mr. Kouzouki. This character allows Chan-wook’s tendencies of torture and gory scenes, including the one with giant octopus. But they are all anything but ridiculous. Each of these bloody elements serving as surprising elements akin for the tropes which never let us as audiences in guessing what’s coming after a scene passes us by.

The camera works by Chung Chung-soon are superb here. As well as production design by Seong-hi Ryu and costume design by Sang-gyeong Jo, who brilliantly embodies the fusion between Eastern and Western, through kimono or corseted silk-georgette gowns. The fusion that leads to a perfection.

Chung’s camera lets us wonder every detail of the world that Chan-wook builds. When it is in the mansion, the camera is crawling through its many sliding and secret doors, providing us a comprehensive geographical understanding to every corner and to every room. One time you think you’re already familiar with the site plan of the mansion. But then Chung’s camera brings us to another dimension by capturing moments and landscape from its ceiling. Giving us a very wide spectrum and textures of every single moment through Chung’s camera. Sometimes he invites us to see things from a small hole as if we’re spying on the characters. The Handmaiden is indeed about characters spying on each other in order to know their intentions and motives. I’m intrigued by some scenes where the main characters are wearing hand gloves when they’re doing something. Hands gloves in the movies are not only for fashion purpose. More than that, hand-gloves are showing their needs to keep their hands cleaned and being untracked. It’s because most of the characters in this film are not pure-hearted. They all have their own motives and agenda. When they get closer emotionally, they would take off their gloves. Chung’s camera perfectly delivers the illusion of espionage and they are all enriched by Cho Young-wook’s magically repetitive yet melodic score, playing the moods and atmosphere in the film to emphasize—either–hilarious, misery or dramatic moments.

The repetitiveness of Chung’s camera works and Young’s music are in tandem by the storytelling choice from Chan-wook. After the mid-duration, we will be reset to the early story where we would get another angle of the story from different passage points of view. We will hear another story from other characters that will bring us to a new understanding. We are given the choice which story we would like to believe. Even though there’s a single conclusion of what’s fate our main heroes will experience, The Handmaiden let us observing and being a part of the experience. For that, when we finally reach the final act, we will relieve and breath freely. As if we’ve been trapped in the same mansion Lady Hideko lives in and we eventually can escape from it. It’s because, like I told you in my early paragraphs, The Handmaiden is a magnum opus of the highest achievement in storytelling. Each person may hear the same story, but their interpretation of it depends on what they’d like to believe. Their interpretations come from their intentions.

At times, The Handmaiden feels like an elegant and artful calligraphy paintings Mr. Kouzaki owns in his mansion. The color feels surreal yet majestic. Mesmerizing yet playful. Like the series of beautifully haunting imageries that speak thousand of words. It’s full of prose and symbolic poetry as the homage to the process of creation of an art. But it’s not an artsy fartsy. It’s the true art for the bourgeoisie and also for bohemian.

For all its duality aesthetic glory, The Handmaiden is the most light-hearted film of Park Chan-wook so far. He’s like a fine wine. Along with his older age, the more mature he’s become. The movie is still his. I take Ang Lee’s 2007 movie as the title for my review. It’s because, plotwise, The Handmaiden reminds me of  Lee’s film. It’s about strong females character who live in a man’s world and trying to fight it but end up being trapped instead. They’re trapped in their own ambition, lust, and passion. But at least, Chan-wook’s characters can make it to the end and to pursue their own destiny. Like Ang Lee, Chan Wook is some of the very few prolific Asian filmmakers who could push boundaries. Their movies sans frontiers.  They provoke us, encourage us, strengthen us, and entertain us. All at once. At the same time. And that what film as an art should do.


South Korea) A The Joker, BAC Films, CJ Entertainment presentation of a Moho Film, Yong Film production. (International sales: CJ Entertainment , Seoul.)

Produced by Park Chan-wook, Syd Lim.

Executive producers :Miky Lee.

Co-producers : Yoon Suk-chan, Kim Jong-dae, Jeong Won-jo.

Co-executive producer : Jeong Tae-sung.

Director :Park Chan-wook

Screenplay : Chung Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook

Adapted from the novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters.

Camera (color, widescreen, HD) : Chung Chung-hoon

Editor : Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum

Music : Cho Young-wuk

Production designer :Ryu Seong-hee

Costume designer : Cho Sang-kyung

sound (5.1 Ch.) : Kim Suk-won

 Visual effects supervisor : Lee Jeon-hyoung

Visual effects : 4th Creative Party

Casts : Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook, Moon So-ri.   

Dialogues in Japanese and Korean.


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