Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016), a gothic psychological thriller with a penchant for the erotic, makes for the kind of cinema unafraid of the grandiose and the emboldened and proves itself to be among the best films of the decade.
It is a movie in which violence is cathartic, in which sex is sensual, not dirty, in which words have the capability to lash, and in which nothing is as it seems. It reminds one of the cinematic zeitgeist of the 1970s, not necessarily as a result of its aesthetic output but because its daring is tangible and because it has no shame in indulging itself in the artistic idiosyncrasies of its maker and the provocations of its lavish atmosphere and its titillating leading heroines. In our cynical 2010s have conversations about the death of film become increasingly prolific – cynics moan about the rise of the blockbuster and the effects the genre’s having on the tastes of mainstream audiences. But The Handmaiden, so unequivocally scintillating, is a triumph powerful enough to silence all scholarly doubts.
Divided into three brilliant acts, the film finds its setting in a labyrinthine, moodily decorated manor run by mad tycoon Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a perverted creep bent on marrying his luscious niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). The situation, conditioned for parasitic power dynamics and illicit melodrama, only grows more sensational due to the arrival of Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a local small-time crook – renamed Tamako on the job – hastily hired by the family to serve as Hideko’s handmaiden.
Unbeknownst to the mansion’s dwellers, though, Sook-hee is not the doe-eyed ingenue she appears to be. She is, in fact, in cahoots with Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a grifter – not count – who has nefarious plans to seduce, marry, and then gaslight Hideko in order to collect a hefty inheritance. Sook-hee, money hungry and essentially raised by wolves, is tasked with persuading Hideko that Fujiwara, who arrives on the grounds shortly after her hiring, is destined to be her soulmate. Succeed and she walks off with a sizable sum that’ll allow her to live the life of luxury she’s materialistically craved her entire life.
But all ploys hit a snag when the women, surprised as us, begin to fall for one another, whether that falling be out of actual love or out of a lust conjured up by unexpected physical fascination. With the first act told by Sook-hee, the second by Hideko, and the last by a pair coming together as one, overarching is a libidinous soap opera that recalls the sexual flash of the greatest hits of Paul Verhoeven, the scrupulous staging of Claude Chabrol, the visual intrigue of Brian De Palma, and the artifice of Douglas Sirk.
But there should be an emphasis on “recalls,” as The Handmaiden is an incomparable work made by an incomparable auteur. It feels like a summation of Park’s oeuvre, conjoining his famed stylistic deliberation and morbid humor with startling ambition. Coming off his last feature, the hypnotic and severely underrated coming-of-age horror tale Stoker (2013), The Handmaiden feels especially masterful – its predecessor was a silky smooth exercise in its genre whereas the film in question is an earthquake of reinvention.
And yet it’s an earthquake of reinvention that never presents itself as strictly self-pleasuring. Like suspense maestro Alfred Hitchcock, Park’s conscientious of delivering a true blue accessibility that makes The Handmaiden both dazzlingly visionary and unabashedly fun. Its bold theatrics, whether they be emotionally or sexually so, caress our senses with the exhilaration of one of Hideko’s lily white kimonos touching Sook-hee’s skin. Park dresses the volcanic dramatics in flickering chandeliers, billowing ball gowns – an overreaching fantastical ritz. But the atmospherics, usually synonymous with oppression and a mannered sort of self-expression, are made all the more thrilling by Park’s deconstruction of them: instances of graphic sexual dialogue (in the second act, Hideko oftentimes entertains visitors with readings of Marquis de Sade-esque novels), of flashes of pink, and of perverse violence are so perfectly timed and so perfectly in sync with the undercurrents of repression that we remember how potent violence and sex can be aesthetically when set free at just the right moment.
But aside from its gifting of ocular curiosities is The Handmaiden’s ultimate cinematic contribution its propelling of onscreen sexuality to heights mostly unseen since 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Color. In a subversive slant, the act of sex itself is not an act of sheer tantalization, an act to be punished for later, or an act of smuttiness – it’s an act underscored in ethereal passion and in emotional connection. Akin to Belle de Jour (1967), Luis Buñuel’s iconic erotic drama that depended on the power of suggestion for its carnal stirrings, every touch, every glance, and every body movement leading up to The Handmaiden’s pivotal sex scene (which arrives near the end of its two-and-a-half hours) aches in its desire – Park finds the excitement in feminine sexuality but never exploits it or undervalues it.
He doesn’t try to understand it like the sleazebags that are Count Fujiwara and Uncle Kouzuki; he, after decades of its being used principally as a marketing tool and/or an objectifiable thing to strictly desire, amplifies its status to that of a weapon. It becomes cerebral and mighty, and we’re taken aback by the way it feels so vital within the context of the movie. In an uncommon variation from the conventional, the nudity and the fornication, while still serving as major talking points, are essential to intellectual and emotional reactions to what The Handmaiden has to offer, which is, of course, incendiary entertainment that turns the ordinarily obscene into something unquestionably artistically inspired.
Much of the film’s success, too, has to do with the casting: no other actresses besides Min-hee and Tae-ri – both of whom are extraordinarily beautiful – could have played Hideko and Sook-hee with the same effective balance between sly resolve and splashy lasciviousness. Their respective performances harken back to those of actresses who cemented their statuses in the erotic thriller genre, namely Kathleen Turner and Sharon Stone. Aware of their beauty but utilizing it as something to be respected rather than abused, they make waves, providing characterizations bewitching enough to last in their drive for the decades to come.
And the reality is is that everything about The Handmaiden is impeccable – it’s innovative enough to satisfy the most well-groomed of a cinephile, entertaining enough to please the most passive of a casual moviegoer, and is monumental enough to immediately designate itself as a new kind of classic. If cinema means anything to you – hell, if you simply like going to the movies – The Handmaiden is an unsurpassed must-watch. Park has outdone himself.