The Handmaiden - Now with Less Octopus

I can't understand a god damned thing Bruce Dickinson is saying

Director: Park Chan-wook (of Oldboy fame)
Starring: Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
Country of origin: South Korea
Running time: 2h47m
Subtitles for both Japanese and Korean dialogue

I blame myself. Really, I do. If only I had seen The Handmaiden sooner; the news of a critically acclaimed Korean movie being released in America is news I shouldn’t have missed. I don’t even have an excuse, as a colleague showed me a trailer many moons ago and I was instantly excited for the movie. Still, it took me two weeks to see it. I suppose I could use the excuse that it’s only available in select theaters in the US right now, but it’s only an hour from my residence, and this is absolutely a film worth driving for. Even if I had seen this when it came out, I’ve got no excuse for how long this review took to write. By the time this is published, there is a significant possibility that The Handmaiden will no longer be playing in theaters stateside, and that is a monumental tragedy. I wish I could have got the word out sooner, because this is the best movie of the year, and it must be seen to be believed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: That's a bold claim, Chris. Are you sure you're not forgetting anything?

The Handmaiden is set in 1930s Japan-occupied Korea (back when there was no North and South), where Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is chosen to be the handmaiden to the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress who’s the niece of an addled pervert (Cho Jin-woong). In reality, this is all part of a scam orchestrated by the dubiously titled “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a scam artist and thief by trade; his grandmaster plan is to marry Hideko with Sook-hee acting as wingwoman. From there, he’ll move all three to Japan, declare Hideko mentally insane, get her confined to a funny farm, take her inheritance, and give some to Sook-hee for her efforts.
Looking at that paragraph leads me to believe this might be a screwball comedy if it were filmed stateside in the 1930s from the point of view of the lead actor. Just imagine Cary Grant doing something like this partnered with Katherine Hepburn. In fact, this might have been what Groucho Marx intended to do with Margaret Dumont in Animal Crackers/Duck Soup/A Day at the Races. I’m not sure how they’d resolve this so everyone gets a happy ending, but I’m sure Howard Hawks could have figured something out.
Sook-hee sets to taking care of Hideko’s whims, while Fujiwara sets to (ineptly) flirting up a storm with the latter. Instead of Fujiwara growing closer to Hideko, Hideko and Sook-hee find themselves drawn closer and closer. This could still be a 1930s (okay, maybe 1950s) screwball comedy, but it becomes increasingly clear that the ladies’ relationship is becoming sensual in nature. Sook-hee can’t stand the way Fujiwara clumsily hits on Hideko, and it becomes clear to the audience that their plan isn’t going to go quite the way they would hope. Sure enough, the first of several major twists occurs at the end of Part 1. As for what happens in Part 2, it would be a sin for me to reveal the plot elements that lie therein after the major twist that precedes them – and you shall not get me to reveal the twist.

For the interest of American audiences we'll refer to Fujiwara exclusively as Joey Wheeler

Remember when M. Night Shyamalan revealed the twist of The Happening in the middle of the movie and it didn’t work at all? There are three primary reasons: the first is the obvious, that the movie was stupid and wasn’t going to work anyway with the laughable writing and embarrassing acting; the second is also very obvious, that the twist was idiotic on its face, somehow worse than the twist in The Village in that it was very easily guessed despite making little sense and punching more holes in the plot than a colander. The third reason the twist in The Happening didn’t work – and this is the most relevant reason – is that the twist didn’t inspire any sort of intrigue on the audience’s part, nor did it change any conventional way of viewing the film. The twist in The Sixth Sense was so great because it made audiences rush back to the theaters to see the movie from a new perspective. The same line of thinking applies to The Usual Suspects, Fight Club, and Park Chan-wook’s former greatest work, Oldboy (my personal my favorite plot twist of all time, and my personal favorite Korean movie – until I saw the subject of this review). Similarly, the twist in The Handmaiden – although presented midway through the movie – is enough to change the perception of the audience and get them sufficiently intrigued for Part 2.
Even though there are two (fairly decently lengthy) parts to this movie, don’t be turned off by the near three hour runtime. Neither a single second nor frame of the movie is wasted nor unnecessary. The Handmaiden may feel nearly three hours long, but they’re among the most wondrous hours you’ve spent in front of a movie screen. This is almost certainly the most beautifully shot movie I’ve ever seen; cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon deserves international acclaim for his marvelous accomplishments. My aforementioned learned colleague (a major in film, for what that’s worth) was literally reaching out to the screen, yearning for the ability to recreate such gorgeous views in his projects. John Ford, eat your heart out.

Unfortunately, I'm relegated to screenshots from the trailer.

Getting back to the length of the movie for a moment – one of the reasons The Handmaiden works so well is that it maintains its pace. Sook-hee is a woman on a mission; she has to attend to Hideko’s needs, she has to convince her lady to fall in love with Fujiwara, and she has to maintain her grasp on sanity, sense of self, sexual identity, and her assignment. This is not an educational film on what it was like to be a handmaiden in 1930s Japan-occupied Korea. You will be disappointed if that’s what you’re looking for (but that’s the only way you’ll be disappointed).
Even with the film (and Sook-hee) focusing on the task at hand, there is some very sly work being done on the part of the film. The Handmaiden is very much a movie that sets to work formulating a heist…caressing your shoulders…telling you a tale of espionage…brushing its lips lightly against yours…establishing strong female characters…working a hand smoothly down the ridges of your spine…complicating matters with conflicting motivations…while breathing down the side of your neck…changing your perceptions of the characters…clutching you close and tight…keeping you on the edge of your seat as to what will happen next…and by then the movie has your limbs intertwined, your heart full to bursting, your head swimming. Better check your pockets.
For this is a movie about seduction and conspiracy. The Handmaiden does an exquisite job of seducing and deceiving the audience by withholding information at times, then presenting it, then presenting it again in a different context; this is something Memento pulled off masterfully. It also does an excellent job of changing how we feel about characters while keeping the rules intact, much like Don’t Breathe (perhaps the most underrated movie of the year). Do we want Sook-hee to get away with this? Will she really betray Hideko after all they’ve been through together? Who is trying to seduce whom?

The immediate question that will be asked is whether this film or Oldboy is the superior work of art. I’m not sure whether I can answer that query. Oldboy and The Handmaiden are very different; the former is a violent movie about vengeance and memory (with a bit of scheming), whereas the latter is an erotic movie about enticement and subterfuge (with a bit of retribution). They’re both psychological thrillers, and they’re both impeccably made, but I just find it so difficult to compare one with the other. One noteworthy difference: I didn’t laugh once during Oldboy, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. On the other hand, I laughed out loud at least six times during The Handmaiden (despite the heavy stuff that went down), and I’m inclined to think that helped the movie out tremendously.
Weirdly enough, this was most certainly not a funny scene.

There’s a six-letter word I used in the previous paragraph that is very important and will prove to be very controversial: erotic. This is an erotic movie, and I don’t mean the way Variety magazine will describe another soulless Angelina Jolie movie. Eroticism defines the genre here, and you need to be ready for it. Last Tango in Paris and In the Realm of the Senses likely established the erotic genre, but this is the movie that perfects and solidifies it. The big love scene is the most intense, explicit sex scene I’ve ever witnessed – and it has to be, for it is also the best sex scene I’ve ever seen. Their climax is the climax of the movie. Even if it weren’t for this scene (and others), there are repeated references to perversion and pornography (antique Japanese pornography, to be fair, but that doesn’t make it any better). I have to give this a fair warning: this is a hardcore lesbian sex scene. Definitely don’t bring your parents. If you don’t want to bring your significant other to this movie, then don’t. This is probably not a date movie. You have plenty of time to go watch Dr. Strange and make out with your partner while thinking about how Benedict Cumberbatch looks like Earthworm Jim.

Chris you know good and god damned well that's exactly what I did except without the partner or significance or others

Nevertheless, The Handmaiden’s currently slightly-underground reputation is a bit of a good thing; if word were to spread about how great this movie is, there would be numerous protests up and down the Bible Belt. This is like Brokeback Mountain, except fully realized and with a much more interesting story. This may seem odd, but there is a bit of an extent that I can realize the umbrage one might take with the movie (although it concerns only the sex scenes; I don’t have any problem with homosexuality). Orson Welles, arguably the most brilliant filmmaker of all time, once said the following: “In my opinion, there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen: the realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God.” The point here is that the two acts are the most personal things a human being can engage in, and a director betrays a portion of humanity – not morality, mind you – by putting it front and center on the big screen. Furthermore, it is very difficult to convince a viewer of its earnestness; recall the lead performance in the noteworthy silent picture The Passion of Joan of Arc, where Renée Jeanne Falconetti was forced to kneel on cold stone with a blank expression to communicate her inner pain – and that’s likely the closest humanity has come to realistic portrayal of rapturous prayer. Does the coitus in The Handmaiden come close to shaking the human spirit?

Can we really match this?

Perhaps it’s not a question of equivalence. Perhaps it’s instead a question of what’s effective. I’ve been on the fence on the issue for quite some time, but The Handmaiden is the movie that has forced me to break with Orson Welles on this matter. I entered into a conversation with an associate recently about what the best sex scene in a movie was, and the pickings were quite slim. Then I saw The Handmaiden. This movie doesn’t say sex is okay. This movie says sex is beautiful.
The Handmaiden is a courageous movie. The actresses were brave to do what they did, the director was brave to adapt this work, and the studio was extremely brave to fund it, especially considering the fact that homosexuality and women-baring-all is still quite taboo in South Korea (yes, more than the United States). All came out of it unscathed, however; in fact, they ought to be celebrated more loudly than ever before. Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee should both garner Academy Award nominations for giving performances that seem so much more believable than Korean dramas that are more grounded. The studio should be happy to make a masterpiece like this. And Park Chan-wook has effectively earned carte blanche to make whatever movie he damned well pleases from now on. If I were a major studio I’d give him the Stanley Kubrick treatment and just hand him a Scrooge McDuck moneybag and say “turn this into magic, 선생님.”
It’s difficult for me to say Park Chan-wook is the next Stanley Kubrick. He’s not. There is no “next Stanley Kubrick.” That’s like saying “[x] is the next Randy Moss”. You only get one in your lifetime, and the comparison damages both men while doing nothing to highlight their unique traits. That being said, if anyone embodies the old great directors, it’s probably Park Chan-wook. I’ve already mentioned that he films a landscape as well as John Ford, but he’s also a master of framing just like Welles, and he’s a master of telling a unique story like Kubrick. I’m not sure I made it clear earlier, but this movie absolutely gorgeous to behold. It doesn’t look nice, it looks spectacular. There are simple shots that take your breath away. I’m not sure whether to ascribe credit to Chung Chung-hoon or Park Chan-wook, but my estimation is it’s a sweet combination of both.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but I absolutely adore this movie. This is unquestionably a must-see, at least from the perspective that you will never ever see anything else quite like it. I wish I could do more, and I wish there were more ways to publicize the quality of this movie. Unfortunately, the deck is already stacked against The Handmaiden; South Korea chose to submit The Age of Shadows for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and each country only gets one. I have yet to see The Age of Shadows, but I feel like this is a missed opportunity. I have little to no faith in the Academy after they failed to recognize the genius works of the Fast and the Furious series, but my sincere hope is that The Handmaiden will at least be nominated for:
-       Best Picture
-       Best Director
-       Best Actress
-       Best Supporting Actress (depends on how the Academy views Kim Tae-ri)
-       Best Adapted Screenplay
-       Best Production Design
-       Best Cinematography
-       Best Makeup and Hairstyling
-       Best Costume Design
I know I’m asking a lot, but I hoped Mad Max: Fury Road would get similar recognition, and that at least garnered a lot of well-deserved nominations. I don’t think I’m asking for too much: I used the word “sincerely.” That’s an important, serious word. I genuinely believe it deserves at least a nomination in each of the aforementioned categories. This is the best movie of the year, and if you miss it you are doing yourself a cultural disservice.
"Ladies are truly the dolls of handmaidens."

1 comment:

  1. The fact that you even think that THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS movies are genius & shouldn've been nominated for Oscars or that it is the best film of the year shows how little you know and understand about films.