Quick Post: Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden

Life is frustrating sometimes. For instance, I recently wrote and posted full reviews of such disappointments as Recount and The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, because doing so overlapped with my grad school curriculum. At the same time, I haven’t been able to devote much time at all to thinking or writing about some of the films I’ve seen recently that are actually worthy of energy and attention.

In an effort to navigate this situation (without killing either this blog or my graduate career), I’m going to start allowing myself to occasionally make much shorter posts than I usually would. These posts won’t be fleshed-out or full reviews, but they should still give you a sense of why I do (or don’t) like the film(s) in question. Up today, we have The Handmaiden

Film: The Handmaiden
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writers: Chan-wook Park, Seo-Kyung Chung, Sarah Waters (novel)
Primary Cast: Min-hee Kim, Kim Tae-ri, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, So-ri Moon, Hae-suk Kim
US Release Date: 21 October 2016

You either like Chan-wook Park or you really don’t. And if you’ve seen even one of his movies, you know which camp you fall into. Though I still need to watch a number of Park’s films—most notably, Thirst and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance—I can confidently say that I enjoy his work. I love his excess, I’m comfortable in his twisted darkness, and I frequently find his nasty sense of humor to be quite delightful. I imagine that most who feel similarly will revel in the many mad joys of The Handmaiden. Meanwhile, those who can’t find anything to like in the film probably can’t stand Park to begin with, are rather dull, or both.

The Handmaiden is lush. Its visuals are sensual, bold, and beautiful. It’s period-influenced sets are lavish and richly detailed. The Handmaiden’s aesthetic is not subtle, but Park commits to a particular style so fully that viewers who are responsive to its touch will be so captivated that they never even think of noticing the film’s 145-minute running time.

The Handmaiden is a movie and a half—visually, narratively, and thematically. There is no lack here (which is not to say it’s without restraint). There are flaws—quite a few actually—but even they manage to add to the depth and the character of the total image. When The Handmaiden fails, it does so boldly and without hesitation. When it succeeds, it’s overwhelming in the best of ways.

Sapphic lovemaking? Check! Gratuitous violence? Check! Perverted old men, tentacle porn, revenge and betrayal? Check, check, check, check! And it all works—in its own gorgeous, erotic, and crazed way.

Despite its period setting, The Handmaiden is more fantasy than history. It’s 3-part narrative reveals itself in a slow, deliberate manner that resembles a strip tease. Its saturated colors are too loud for reality. Its characters are all turned up to 11 (at the very least). And (thankfully) it never takes itself too seriously.

The Handmaiden might not be for everyone, but it’ll prove essential for many. This dark tale of love, sex, and abuse knows it’s too much for some, but those that it does seduce will get more than enough pleasure out of it for everyone.

Also, Min-hee Kim is absolutely gorgeous.

Until Next Time
In an effort to make grad school more bearable and to (hopefully) start feeling a little less out of place in LA, I’m trying to make a habit of going to the movie theater at least semi-regularly. I also recently signed up for FilmStruck, in the hopes that spending money motivates me to watch more films outside of my school-related duties and class syllabi.

For what it’s worth (and as much as I hate comparing films), The Handmaiden reminds me a bit of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (for obvious reasons, I suppose).


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