The Handmaiden might be the most immaculately crafted film of 2016. Director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Thirst) always had a flair for the cinematic, but these films were often hard to find beautiful because of the violent subject matter. However, shifting his craft to a period drama, his visual style sings.
A story in three parts, The Handmaiden follows the complex relationships of three characters. Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a master thief who is solicited by Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to help him in a con. The target is Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress. The plan is for Fujiwara to marry her and then send her to a mental institution, leaving Fujiwara with all the wealth. Sook-Hee poses as a handmaiden for Lady Hideko, but finds her commitment to the con wavering when she begins to develop feelings for Lady Hideko.
And this is maybe the first thirty minutes of the film. At a beefy two and a half hours, this film somehow manages to make every scene memorable and engaging. Even more than that, each subsequent part adds another dimension to what is going on between the three characters. Scenes that were confusing or moments left unexplained gain clarity in the final act.
If there’s one fatal flaw to the film, it’s that it lingers far too long on a number of sex scenes. While most of these moments are needed to move the story forward, the sheer amount of time spend on each one is often gratuitous. It seems that Park Chan-wook trades an excess of violence for an excess of sex.
However, it’s hard to begrudge the film too much for these moments because of how gorgeous every moment is. Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon often shoots in one point perspective, making for these balanced, elegant shots. And there are also a number of moments where focus is shifted from background to foreground and back in order to get the most out of a shot as possible.
Ryu Seong-hie’s production design also enhance the film. Being a period drama, there is a lot of opportunity for vibrant costumes and detailed sets and the film is oozing with rich design. There’s a fantastic scene where Sook-Hee goes through all of Lady Hideko’s things, reveling in the wealth and also the promise of getting some of Lady Hideko’s possessions. It’s both a love letter to the visual splendor of Japanese fashion as well as insight into Sook-Hee’s blinding greed.
The visual splendor alone would probably sustain a lot of the film, but the depth and complexity of the narrative make the film an absolute delight. While I have qualms with the length of the sex scenes, every other moment is immaculately crafted from all angles. This film is an absolute cinematic treat and one of the best films of the year.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing