DVD Review: The Handmaiden

By , Contributor
Director Park Chan-wook pulls off quite a cinematic sleight of hand in The Handmaiden, the South Korean film that became a critics' darling in 2016. The twists and turns that fire its plot are so far-fetched that a director with less self-assured vision probably would've tanked them. Told in three parts, this 145-minute thriller walks a fine line between cleverness and preposterousness. But Chan-wook keeps his story of deception, love, and perversity sailing steadily all the way to its somewhat ho-hum conclusion. Most of it is spellbinding, however, and well worth seeking out.

"Part One" is told from the perspective of a young thief named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri). She and con artist Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) have teamed up in an effort to trick Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese woman who grew up under the harsh rule of her uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Hideko stands to inherit quite a large sum of money. Fujiwara figures if he can marry her, driver her crazy (literally), and have her locked away in an institution, he'll have it all to himself. He secures a place for Sook-hee as a handmaiden to Hideko. Under the phony name Tamako, Sook-hee will attempt to subtly convince Hideko that Fujiwara is the man for her. 
Handmaiden 1.jpg Sook-hee, who stands to gain a nice cut of the inheritance, finds Hideko painfully easy to manipulate. What she didn't count on was falling in love with her. As her feelings for Hideko deepen, Sook-hee's commitment to Fujiwara's scheme slackens. Hideko was raised by her aunt, who hanged herself when Hideko was a child. The circumstances surrounding that event are highly suspect. In fact, there's much more going on within Kouzuki's estate than meets the eye, something Sook-hee begins to pick up on. Both Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee are sensational in roles that require them to remain nearly impossible to figure out.

The tables are turned during "Part Two," where we see essentially the entire story again but from Hideko's point of view. Mysteries are solved, nagging questions are answered, and essentially everything we've seen so far is revealed to have been incomplete. To go into details would spoil the fun of discovery as we come to understand the true motivations of these characters. "Part Three" begins once the second part has caught up to where the first left off. It's during the concluding act that we see the depths of depravity of which Kouzuki is capable.

The Handmaiden is ultimately just as deceptive as the characters it depicts. As viewers, our equilibrium is thrown off as we grapple with the issue of who's conning whom. In the end, this is very superficial stuff. Thankfully director Park Chan-wook (who co-scripted with Chung Seo-kyung, adapting Sarah Waters' 2002 novel Fingersmith) imbues his film with a sense of weighty emotion that creates an illusion of gravity. There's little if anything to really ponder after the credits roll, except maybe to piece all the various parts together and try to find holes. As entertainment The Handmaiden is solid enough to overcome its hollowness.


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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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