Chan-wool Park's The Handmaiden finds the praised South Korean filmmaker at the height of his powers, delivering a skillfully interwoven narrative which is both bold and intricately constructed, transporting the viewer into a one-of-a-kind tale about sexuality, repression, and empowerment. Taking place during in 1930s Korea, during the Japanese occupation, The Handmaiden tells the story of Sookhee, a young girl, who is hired as the handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, Hideko, a beautiful young woman who lives a secluded life in the countryside with her domineering Uncle. While Sookee's demeanor is one of timid resolve, she has a secret, being recruited by Fujiwara, a swindler who poses as a Japanese count to help him seduce the naive Hideko so they can rob her of her fortune. Chan-wook Park's The Handmaiden is arguably the best narrative film of the year, a expertly constructed film that plays with its audience's perceptions from start to finish. Deceptive in execution, The Handmaiden teases narrative outcomes throughout while it slowly reveals its thematic intentions, sneakily becoming a powerful story of female sexual empowerment and love. This is the type of film that I'd recommend going into knowing as little as possible, so with that being said, I'll try my best in this review to not spoil anything, though it's quite impossible to discuss much of the film's thematic ideals without spoiling earlier aspects of its narrative. For much of its running time, Chan-wook Park presents two characters in Hideko & Sookhee as repressed woman, each struggling in different ways with their current status in life. For Sookhee, she views Hideko as her way out of her rural, low-income upbringing, infatuated by escaping South Korea for a better life. Hideko on the other hand is a character who lives a life of solitude, haunted by her aunt's death and her domineering uncle, a sexual deviant who takes advantage of his niece for his own deranged placed. For much of the narrative both these characters find themselves slaves to the whims of their male oppressors, in the form of both Uncle Kouzuki & Fujiwara, but it's through their shared femininity and eventually love for each other that they break free of their shackles. Chan-wook Park's direction and visual design aids heavily in this story, featuring a heavy dose of tight, closeup compositions, exhibiting a sense of intimacy in the early moments of attraction between the young handmaiden & her suitor, giving the whole film a sexually-charged energy that is both subversive and sexy. In a sense, Chan-Wook Park's The Handmaiden could simply be described as a subversive love story, exhibiting two oppressed woman in Sookee & Hideko, who together find themselves sexually liberated by the whims of their male oppressors, finding their own desires and true emotions for each other through this liberation. Perhaps the last scene of Chan-wook Park's The Handmaiden perfectly encapsulates this ideal, finding the two woman in bed together, using a pair of metal balls as a form of sex toy, a fitting way to wrap up this one-of-a-kind tale of female sexual repression and ultimately empowerment.
Love of all things cinema brought me here.