Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo
Director: Park Chan-wook
Running Time: 144 mins
The Handmaiden is a South Korean film about a young woman who is hired as a handmaiden to a wealthy Japanese heiress, tasked with undermining her in an attempt to gain access to her fortune.
This is quite an exceptional film. With two and a half hours of intense, rapid-fire betrayal, unpredictability and purely psychotic thrills, The Handmaiden is an intoxicating watch from start to finish. Directed stupendously by Park Chan-wook, and featuring three amazing central performances, it’s a film that will grab you with its unbelievable levels of insanity and darkness, but will thrill you again and again with a sumptuous and confident execution of an enthralling story.
Let’s first establish what on earth this film really is, and why that makes it so brilliant. On the one hand, this works on its own as a period thriller, with the setting of Korea under Japanese colonial rule allowing for some insight into the time period of the 1920s-30s, as well as some beautiful costume and production design, all of which plays a big role in making the film as elegant as it is.
On the other hand, the story is an incredibly intense affair featuring twists and turns the likes of which you’ve never seen. The film is directed by Park Chan-wook, who also made the legendarily messed-up thriller Oldboy, a fact that’s even more disturbing when you realise that The Handmaiden is in more ways than one even more psychotic and terrifying than that movie.
The story is one of deception, betrayal and love from start to finish, and in that, it’s very reminiscent of two classic thrillers. The style of its story, featuring three acts based around three enormous but totally unpredictable twists, is much like how David Fincher’s Gone Girl plays out, whilst the content of the story, involving two characters secretly working together to get one over on someone they have befriended is hugely reminiscent of Diabolique, a film so effective in its thrills that it actually influenced the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Anyway, it’s a plot that’s difficult to talk about without giving away any spoilers, but it is one that is utterly thrilling at every moment. Not just an unpredictable mystery, but a story so full of depth and emotional intrigue, allowing its characters to flourish in the most unorthodox of ways as the plot snowballs towards breaking point.
However, the plot alone isn’t what makes this film so amazing. Above all, Park Chan-wook’s direction plays a huge role in that. As we know, Park is a director with the ability to not just weird you out, but chill you to the bone with some pretty demented stories.
Here, he doesn’t hold back even for a second when it comes to portraying the sheer brutality of the lead trio. The story that unfolds effectively takes the form of a love triangle, but Park makes sure to emphasise the darker side of that sort of conflict by filling the film with some incredibly frank and unbelievably graphic sex.
Now, many films go too far on this front and become completely gratuitous, but that’s not the case with The Handmaiden. Although there are two scenes that are almost unwatchable given their graphic nature, the sex scenes play an incredibly powerful and central role to the entire story, and without being portrayed in such a frank and carnal manner, the intensity of the story and the betrayals that come about as a result would never have been so strong.
Another reason that the film is so intense is simply because it just doesn’t stop. It may run for almost two and a half hours, but believe me, that time feels no more than ten minutes thanks to the unbelievable pace of the movie. Split up into three perfect parts whose structure messes with your perceptions of the story as much as anything else in this movie, the story moves along at an almost relentless pace, continuing to snowball as things get far darker, and far, far more disturbing, but it makes for an incredible viewing experience that leaves you completely intoxicated from the very first scene to the very last.
Finally, we can’t forget the performances, which are just as brilliant as everything else in the movie. The leading trio are exceptional to watch, and they work amazingly on screen with one another, with just enough chemistry to make their cordial relationships convincing, and yet enough alarm in their individual turns to keep everything on a knife edge.
Kim Min-hee is amazing as the Japanese heiress, and is able to throw you way off scent when it comes to really figuring out what her character is all about. Then Kim Tae-ri is just as brilliant as the handmaiden herself, and shows an incredible level of intensity as what at first seems like the film’s most orthodox character. And finally, Ha Jung-woo excels as the Korean man disguising himself as a Japanese count to win the heiress’ affections (and fortune), with a strong, and often even frightening performance bringing total unpredictability to proceedings.
On the whole, I was absolutely blown away by The Handmaiden. It’s an intense and at times jaw-dropping piece of work that will have your eyes glued to the screen at almost every second. Directed beautifully by Park Chan-wook, it’s an elegant period drama crossed with one of the most intense and demented thrillers you’ll ever see, and its incredibly graphic sex will have you cowering away while being simultaneously stunned by the dramatic power on display. Its two and a half hours pass by in an instant, but its intensity and purely psychotic nature will stay with you long afterwards, and that’s why I’m giving The Handmaiden an 8.9 overall.