Sometimes a film comes along with such bravado, such an overwhelming confidence that it washes away any doubt that you are watching a supremely good film. Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden is nothing if not absolutely confident in itself. And it has every right to be.
Based on Sarah Waters' Fingersmith, The Handmaiden is a tricky proposition to approach. Like giving away the solution to an intricate puzzle box, revealing the secrets of the movie feels like you are taking away from the experience of watching it. The basics of the story, in a change from the novel's Victorian England setting, take place in 1930s Korea. The film tells the story of a Japanese heiress' new handmaiden, who is working in cahoots with a con artist to rob the heiress of her fortune and lock her away in a madhouse. However this is only the first thirty minutes of the film and to reveal more of the plot and how it develops would be to ruin one of the chief delights of The Handmaiden.
The film is the latest in a long line of outstanding South Korean movies of recent years. Following the frenetic zombie horror, Train to Busan, and epic exorcism/cop drama, The Wailing, The Handmaiden sees the return of Park Chan-wook, whose defining work today has been the sublime Vengeance Trilogy, and in particular Oldboy. If you've seen Oldboy, you will know what to expect from The Handmaiden, and will be aware there will be stylish twists, copious amounts of sex & a lot of violence. Where The Handmaiden surprises is that, amongst the pulpy goodness, it has a beating heart. This is perhaps the film's biggest twist of all, it engages on an emotive level and has a tremendous power to move.
The cast is central to the film's impact and, in particular, the dual performances of Min-hee Kim & Tae-ri Kim. Min-hee Kim, the more experienced of the two, plays the heiress with a simultaneous ferocity and vulnerability; while relative newcomer Tai-ri Kim, is playful, heartbreaking and wonderfully vicious as the handmaiden. Their scenes together are sublime, and as the film morphs around them they adapt to meet it, their bond constantly driving the film forward. They are ably supported by the rest of the cast, with every character lingering in the imagination, even those with only a smattering of scenes.
The film is viscerally and aurally stunning, proving a sumptuous treat. As with all of Park's films it is possible to simply allow The Handmaiden to wash over you and focus purely on the stylistic quirks of the films, but by relocating the film from the novel's setting he opens up a fascinating thematic strand. The new setting of 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea allows an exploration of identity, and the various ways it can be oppressed, in terms of race, gender and sexuality. Watching the two female characters at the film's core overcome such instances of oppression is genuinely fascinating and it is in this that The Handmaiden finds a quality that will make it effortlessly re-watchable for years to come.
In short, I loved The Handmaiden. Stylishly confident and emotionally resonant, it tells a fascinating story in a bold, startling manner. Anchored by a pair of outstanding performances, it is another jewel in the crown of modern South Korean cinema. Park Chan-wook once again proves why he is one of the most exciting directors in modern cinema. A must see.