The Handmaiden (2016; Chan-wook Park)
By Daniel Barnes
The best film of the year so far.
Anyone who has followed me over the years knows my love-hate relationship with the act of taking notes during a film. My chief concern: it interferes with the act of eating Skittles during a film. Notetaking is valuable when writing a long review. It can also be a distraction, but I generally find that my attention is more forensic and less reactive when I take notes.
I run hot and cold with notetaking, and I’m in the middle of a cold spell right now. This is all to say that I feel completely unprepared to discuss Oldboy director Chan-wook Park’s spellbinding The Handmaiden without pages and pages of richly annotated notes at my disposal. However, I don’t know that any amount of notes could prepare me to wrap my arms around this bottomless well of a movie after a single screening. After all, I probably couldn’t explain the cosmos after spending a single night under the stars.
Min-hee Kim plays Lady Hideko, a shrinking violet heiress kept by her creepy collector uncle. Meanwhile, Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-Hee, Lady Hideko’s gawky new handmaiden. We quickly learn that Sook-Hee is secretly a con artist working in concert with a sleazy gigolo, helping to push the virginal Lady Hideko into a quickie marriage before shipping her off to the nuthouse.
“Surrealism and Madness”
Of course, that’s only the opening movement in a symphony of visual seduction, character misdirection and narrative double-backs. Park weaves ideas about sexuality, performance, perversion and storytelling into something deeply, wonderfully strange and erotic. The aesthetics are impeccable, the performances are luminescent, the characters are rich and complex.
The film is also weirdly funny in a way that few others besides Park could manage. Park and Seo-Kyung Chung adapted The Handmaiden from Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith. They moved the action from Victorian England to Korea in the 1930s. As with Oldboy, The Handmaiden takes place in a real-world heightened to the point of surrealism and madness. It would be a shame to spoil any of the silky curves of the story or reveal any of the bizarre obsessions and talismans at the heart of the tale. It suffices to say that silver bells aren’t just for Christmas time in the city anymore.
I haven’t been so mystified and fascinated by a film, so curious to understand the spell it cast over me, since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.