THE HANDMAIDEN (2016, Park Chan-wook)
Perfectly calibrated to strike a wonderful tone — elevated, melodramatic, pulpy, and eye-popping. It’s everything OLDBOY was and everything STOKER was not, so rest assured the Park you know and love is back with a (lady) vengeance. The 145-minute running time flies by thanks to a Tarantino-esque structure (the two directors have often had similar styles in both writing and directing) that shifts gears, upends chronology, and recontextualizes information. And the performances of all three leads are outstanding. It may not amount to too much in terms of depth, but as a lurid piece of entertainment, this is great stuff.
You may think you’ve seen this story before, but don’t confuse it with the 1960 Korean thriller THE HOUSEMAID and its batshit 2010 remake. It’s a tight contest for Korea’s most batshit director, though, and Park has made a pretty good case over the last decade or two. Also, in Part One of this movie Kim Min-hee tells the titular handmaiden (Kim Tae-ri) that “in different shoes, even a well-trodden path feels new.” That’s a pretty good argument for Park telling a twisty period love triangle with his characteristic love of visceral imagery, sex, and violence.
Some of the humor doesn’t translate too well, as many will find the slapstick gags (pulling corset strings tight, accidental noose-hanging, etc.) obvious and corny — but that’s all part of Park’s exaggerated tone, so take the bad with the good. The two female leads are relative unknowns and draw fascinating three-dimensional characters, while male lead Ha Jung-woo (you may know him from Kim Ki-duk’s TIME) plays the villain deliciously. The same can’t be said for Jo Jin-woong’s torturous Uncle character — Jo can’t be over 40, but is dressed up in cheap grey hair and bad makeup to appear an old man, and it doesn’t work. Still, Park’s regular DP Chung Chung-hoon frames his steady shots with painterly elegance, evocative lighting, and pops of pastel color, lending the film a candy flavor that fits with the script’s sugary highs and sex-positive eroticism. THE HANDMAIDEN could easily be a fourth entry in Park’s vengeance “trilogy,” but that only becomes apparent halfway through. The real enjoyment here comes in the story’s surprises (it’s based on a novel by English author Sarah Waters) and the cathartic pitch Park’s masterful direction unleashes. This guy knows what he’s doing.