With a filmography consisting of the likes of Oldboy, Stoker and Lady Vengeance, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden was always going to be mysterious and challenging. Our Stephanie saw the film at last year’s London Film Festival and described it as “a triumphant project, pacing its plot well in order to stay engrossing for the whole of its runtime, and creating a dark and twisted piece of cinema that is an imaginative take on an English Victorian-set novel.”
To celebrate its full release, the team have got together to discuss their thoughts on this steamy, stylish period piece.
Kambole – 5/5
This is one of those films where you can genuinely say “nothing is as it seems”, as each act of the film wildly recontextualises the last – each twist informing the characters in a surprising and fascinating way. Every scene is shot with incredible grace and a surprising amount of intimacy, as Park lays off his extreme brand of violence to focus on a wild and highly emotional (and very explicit) tale.
This is an expertly crafted film, and save a handful of moments that might be overly gratuitous, I really can’t fault it.
James – 4/5
Much fuss will be made of the provocative lesbian sex scenes but in truth they aren’t there to provoke at all, but to serve plot and character development – which they do excellently. In what’s being labelled an “erotic thriller”, this is just one aspect of Park Chan-wook’s clever setup – as the layers of deception and double-crossing are revealed and totally change what we think we’ve witnessed in the first act.
The two female leads spark with an awkward but authentic chemistry, in a gorgeous-looking film that exudes both style and substance.
Jack – 5/5
It’s hard to put into words just how much I loved this movie. Along with Paul Thomas Anderson, my favourite director is Alfred Hitchcock, and The Handmaiden felt like Hitch had been reincarnated in Korea to give us one last film. Park Chan-wook’s visual splendours are in full effect, from the production design to the beautiful cinematography, but it’s the triple-cross-filled mystery story at its heart that makes it so brilliant. It’s an exhilarating amount of fun that fully earns its demands of a second viewing, with a final shot so hilariously audacious I was practically punching the air.
Carmen – 4/5
The Handmaiden could be forgiven for many faults due to its sumptuous style, but there are hardly any faults to forgive. The suspenseful atmosphere, well-paced dialogue and actions, and Park Chan-wook’s expert handling of the unfolding mystery make this film a gripping thriller-romance as well as a visual treat. The plot progresses in a semi-linear fashion as different characters reveal their sides of the narrative – a conceit which captures the audience’s attention relentlessly; a feat for a two-and-a-half-hour film. While the first twist doesn’t arrive until almost an hour in, it is satisfactorily stunning, and the latter half tantalises on each reveal.
Tom – 5/5
Adapting a steamy lesbian thriller from Victorian London to 1930s Korea shouldn’t work this well, but in the hands of Park Chan-wook it’s an instant classic.
His greatest achievement is how he handles perspective, flipping the narrative on its head three times, with each angle revealing new motivations and hidden depths. His camera is agile and beautifully choreographed, sliding boldly around the immaculate period sets without losing its grip on your attention. The Handmaiden is one of the most beautiful and entertaining films of the year so far. Just maybe don’t watch it with your parents.
Louise – 4/5
As full of beauty and charm as it is suspense and drama, The Handmaiden is a truly breathtaking piece of work from director Park Chan-wook. Drawn in instantly by the stunning cinematography, you’re quickly swept along by a story full to the brim with intrigue and sexuality. The struggle between Japanese and Korean cultures colliding only adds to the tension in this dark yet, at times, surprisingly funny period piece.
There’s hardly a moment to catch your breath, and just when you think all of the twists and turns are over, along comes another to knock you off your feet.
David – 4/5
Tawdry headlines carry the misconstrued belief that The Handmaiden is little more than a man’s wet dream. This could not be further from the truth. Park Chan-wook’s latest is a revelatory, passionate and well measured take on sexuality – reviewing the male gaze, and the beauty of lesbianism. Praise deserves to be showered on the two lead actresses Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri, and the luscious cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon for creating a sumptuous feast.
Bar one gratuitous sex scene and a slight sag in the second act, this is one of the best of the year so far.