Movie Review: ‘THE HANDMAIDEN’ cons its audience with its gothic romance

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Preston Barta // Editor

THE HANDMAIDEN
Rated R, 144 minutes.
Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Min-hee KimKim Tae-riJung-woo Ha and Jin-woong Jo

There is a special admiration reserved for movies that top two hours, maintaining their momentum and intrigue. They earn their lengthy running time by drawing you into a complicated story featuring compelling characters and seasoned with damn good filmmaking.

Filmmaker Park Chan-wook (OLDBOY) is a cinematic neat freak. He’s meticulous and puts an abundance of thought into the framing and content of each and every scene. Everything has a reason for its place and why it’s shown the way it is, and this is quite apparent in Chan-wook’s latest spellbinder THE HANDMAIDEN.

Read Courtney Howard’s interview with Park Chan-wook here.

It doesn’t take long for THE HANDMAIDEN to play its first trick on you. What appears as a period romance mixed with a dash of crime turns out to be something else entirely, and even that deviation is only part of the film’s twisted truth. Its sole purpose seems to be our yielding to the bizarre pleasures of its rich and enigmatic world.

The film sets the stage by turning back the clock to 1930s colonial Korea. It centers on two con artists – Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and a personal servant named Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim) – who try to seduce and abandon a wealthy Japanese heiress (Min-hee Kim) who’s under the thumb of her erratic, sex-obsessed Uncle Kouzuki (the haunting Jin-woong Jo). What’s initially presented as simple is anything but, however, as each character in turn gradually unveils their own agenda hidden up their sleeve.

Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) and Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) in THE HANDMAIDEN. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures  and Amazon Studios.

Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) and Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) in THE HANDMAIDEN. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures and Amazon Studios.

Chan-wook adapts Sarah Waters’ novel FINGERSMITH and builds upon it in a way that not only captures the spirit of the original text but also aptly translates it into the language of cinema. This is most notable in the film’s comedy. While it’s quite surprising that a film with such dark and gothic material could be so funny, this is perhaps Chan-wook’s most comical film yet. It even has an American feel to its humor, which could have come from his exploration of British and American culture with his previous film, the underappreciated STOKER.

What’s most admirable about THE HANDMAIDEN is its structure. It’s divided into three parts to allow a full rendering of the story as it’s filtered through varied perspectives of its characters. Even if you are shown the same act twice – such as an erotic scene between its two leads or an argument outside the heiress’ mansion – there’s a sense of novelty and a subtle difference of tone that keeps the film moving and your interests on the top shelf.

The safest way to describe this film is it’s a story of women empowerment, which is especially rare with the male-dominated presence that comes with these sorts of films. But Chan-wook seems to be conscious of the genre and the traditions that accompany it, all while freeing himself of its restrictions.

With THE HANDMAIDEN, he’s crafted a mysterious, imaginative and stylish to a fault feature that defies expectations and ranks among the year’s finest.

THE HANDMAIDEN opens in limited release on Friday, Oct. 28.
Dallas: Angelika Dallas

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.