Handmaiden, The (2016)

A sexually-explicit Korean lesbian film that proves to be invitingly perverse under the hands of visual master Park Chan-wook.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #1,321

Dir. Park Chan-wook
2016 | South Korea | Drama/Mystery | 146 mins | 2.35:1 | Korean & Japanese
R21 (edited) for homosexual content.

Cast: Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Kim Tae-Ri, Jo Jin-woong, Moon So-ri
Plot: A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her.
Awards: Won Technical Grand Prize for Art Direction; Nom. for Palme d’Or and Queer Palm (Cannes).

International Sales: CJ Entertainment

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Mature
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: In Theatres
First Published: 4 Jul 2016
Spoilers: Mild

This review is written based on the original, uncensored version as Park Chan-wook would have intended.  The theatrical version in Singapore has been violently butchered with at least 4 minutes worth of cuts. 

It is hard to believe that it has been seven years since Park Chan-wook’s last Korean-language film, the vampire movie Thirst (2009), made during a time when vampire movies were the craze—remember the global phenomenon that was the ‘Twilight’ saga, or for more sophisticated audiences, the Swedish breakout hit Let the Right One In (2008)? 

After an ill-advised detour to make Stoker (2013), his mixed English-language debut, he returns to what he does best with The Handmaiden, which competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Winning the Technical Grand Prize for art direction, a rarity as the award usually goes to cinematography or sound design, The Handmaiden is a lavish and exquisite production, with Park pulling out all the stops in his attention to period detail. 

Based on the 2002 novel by Sarah Waters, Park adapts its Victorian era setting into 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, where a young woman named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri in her feature debut) is hired as a handmaiden to the rich, reclusive Lady Hideko (the ice-cold Kim Min-hee), in an elaborate plot by the fraudulent Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to seduce and marry the heiress to inherit her fortune.

“You can even curse at me or steal things from me. But please don’t lie to me. Understand?”

Told in three parts, with each subsequent part unravelling more details about each character’s inner motives, the film’s multiple twists and turns will delight audiences who expect nothing less than a mind-boggling trip down Perversion Street, led by one of contemporary Asian cinema’s visual masters. 

The Handmaiden sees Park taking a dizzying trip into more erotic territory—if Oldboy (2003) was a bloody opera of wanton vengeance and morbid violence, this is an orgy of lurid sexual detail, hidden desires, and explicit lesbian sex. 

Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee are particularly game, and in the film’s most eye-widening moment, a moment that stretches to what seems like two full minutes—I’m sure to the incredible dismay of my country’s censorship board—both actresses are fully nude and scissoring with intense passion, with Park giving us not only the sounds of their pleasure, but also—if your ears are sharp enough—the aural illusion of their wet vulvae rhythmically meeting. 

The Handmaiden has courted controversy, but that should not take away the superb performances by the two leading ladies, and Park’s strength in visual storytelling. 

The only problem is that the film does suffer from an uneven pacing—each of the three parts is intriguing in its own way, but the whole movie would have benefited from a tighter cut.  It may not be one of Park’s very best, but this is a salacious treat, if you can find the uncut version.

Grade: A-




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