*This review will contain spoilers for, The Handmaiden. I usually avoid any and all spoilers, but with this film it is just too difficult to write a review and not go into greater detail about particular plot points or character revelations. So be warned, if you haven’t seen the film, this review will spoil some major elements of the expansive story.*
The Handmaiden, directed by Chan-wook Park, is an exquisitely constructed piece of cinema. Every aspect of it seems so meticulously handled; each part of the intricate story is weaved in such a way that you can’t, and don’t, ever want to avert your attention. And then each character is continually evolving; causing you to completely re-map your initial assumptions of them. Quite often would this film make me wholly redefine everything I first assumed of it, and that is an incredible film watching experience to be a part of. This is one of those films where I don’t feel I have the writing ability to properly give it its due, but I’m going to try, and so on with the review.
Sook-Hee – played by Tae-ri Kim – is hired to be the personal handmaiden to, Lady Hideko – played by Min-hee Kim. What starts off as something simple, turns into something much more complex, as nefarious plots and backstabbing begins to unfold/occur. Who is on what side and who will come out victorious? You will be left unsure, right up until the very end.
This is a film that is forever evolving. Never did I truly get a handle on where things were going or how they might play out. The very first time the script was flipped on me, was such a rewarding, game-changing moment. I thought I had the plot sussed out; I was pretty sure I knew where things would go, and I was completely fine with the journey it was taking me on.
But then, everything shifted; everything changed and my entire outlook on the film had to be re-adjusted. When we learn that not only is Sook-Hee not who she seems, but that the Count – played by Jung-woo Ha – is also in on it, well, I immediately sat up in my chair and prepared for something that I was at no point expecting (it also helped that I never watched any of the trailers for this film and so had nothing spoiled for me).
But then beyond that initial twist, the film does it many more times; each one being greater and more redefining than the last. After the first time it did it, I was smiling from ear to ear, as it’s not often that a film can surprise you like how this one does, and so I was really excited to see how this new turn in the narrative would play-out. And then beyond that I never even considered all the other twists and turns that were on the horizon – each one being more exciting and rewarding to see play-out, than the last one.
What I found to be the most incredible part of how the overall story is handled, was how it never became confusing or difficult to follow. I at all times felt like I was still in the loop and a part of the story. Even when the film would completely re-write the whole path it was initially on, I still felt I had a handle on what was happening; it never felt like the film left me behind in favour of its evolving story. It really is masterful what director Chan-wook Park and his team accomplished when you consider the construction and execution of the film in its totality.
So as well as the story – which I at all times was giving my full, unbroken attention, there were also the characters that are weaved perfectly into the ever evolving narrative. The Handmaiden offers some of the most layered and fascinating characters you could hope for. I almost don’t know where to start, there’s just so much to break-down and talk about.
I think I’ll touch upon the relationships that builds and ultimately forms the primary focus of the film itself. Through the story, which forever changes, the characters themselves do the same. Just as you think you understand the motivation of someone, and know where it is that it is going to take them, everything shifts and that person you thought you once knew, is now a whole newly motivated person that you have to reacclimatise too.
And the relationships between the three main characters are much the same. What this does is take the conventional way in which you attempt to get to know and understand a character, and completely throw that out the window. Having a characters entire persona turn out to be a lie, not only alters how you look at them going forward, but it then also causes you to think back on all those times where you read a scene one way but realise it was actually playing out completely different.
It helps that the film also returns to moments from earlier in the story, but this time it is approached from a new angle and perspective. Not only are you reading the whole interaction with a new set of eyes, but director Chan-wook Park makes sure to shoot the scene in new ways; ways that now help to communicate what we’ve learned.
Speaking Chan-wook Park – and also cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung – I loved how they shot the film; the multiple ways in which they would frame a scene and where they would place the camera, meant that you had a broad range of visual offerings.
So at times you would see these lavish sets where we have a nice wide-shot that shows everything you need to see. And then – when it was necessary – the camera would get as close as it possibly could to the characters; highlighting every little nuance of their relationship. Much of what we learn about the characters is communicated in these more intimate moments. Making for a film where your visual interpretations are as important as your ability to follow the story.
The Handmaiden is a film that is very generous in what it gives to you. There is much to take in and think about. You almost become a detective as the film progresses; trying to put all the pieces together and understand the full picture of not only the story but also the characters. And the multiple ways in which you are delicately and thoughtfully fed information, makes for a film watching experience that is always satisfying.
The story and the characters in The Handmaiden are just astoundingly rich in their offerings. You are gifted at least 4 individuals who by themselves could fill a whole film. And so despite having so much to take in and process, it never felt like anyone was lost in all the flip-flopping and revelations, nor did the story feel incoherent or encumbered by all its moving pieces. The characters all very much become their own people, whose multi-layered self’s were at all times full of so much personality and deception and, the story perfectly fits around them, bringing them and you along on an incredible journey.
I still can’t fully get over just how impactful this film is. There were so many times where I was in awe of what it was doing and how it was doing it. It’s an experience that doesn’t come along often and it is one that stays with you for some time. I’m still processing aspects of the film; mulling them over and breaking them down. It is all so rewarding and unforgettable.
What Chan-wook Park achieves with The Handmaiden is astounding. What the actors tackle and present is perfection, and what the film as a whole delivers is a truly outstanding experience.
I am absolutely recommending The Handmaiden. This is one you won’t regret seeing; it will leave you with so much to think about. It is a special piece of cinema for sure.
I would love to know what you thought of the film, and also what you thought of my review. So please feel free to leave your thoughts, opinions and feedback in the comments down below. Also, if you would be so kind as to follow my blog or follow me over on Twitter – @GavinsRamblings, that would be swell. All that’s left to say is thank you. Thank you for taking the time to read my writing and I hope you return.