The Handmaiden Review

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Fifty Shades as told by someone competent…and who wanted hardcore lesbian sex

It’s been a while since Park Chan-wook, director of the psychologically scarring but phenomenal Oldboy, graced us with his presence. Today he’s back just in time for Awards season with a film that I’ve had difficulty describing what made it work so well. The reason for this difficultly is superficial, but I’ll get it out of the way: what can make a hardcore sex scene exploitative and what can make it artistic?

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And you thought you were getting some period piece snooze fest?

Before we start making critical analysis, our nearly three hour story (seriously) begins in Korea during the Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century. We have a pickpocket named Sook-Hee who is hired by a con man under the alias of Fujiwara to be the handmaiden for a wealthy Japanese family, so that she can encourage the heiress Lady Hideko to fall in love with Fujiwara. The con man’s plan is to elope with the wealthy woman and swipe her inheritance from her wealthy Uncle Kouzuki then leave her to rot in an insane asylum. You’d think I just spoiled this grand plan and the entire movie…but you’d be wrong. This plan is spelled out in the first 10 minutes, the rest of this movie is a surprising chain of double and triple crosses with some steamy sex to spice things up.

So THIS is what is known as a sex thriller, When the Bough Breaks, not some yawn fest where you swan about whether or not the obvious psycho killer is gonna fuck the obviously dedicated husband. For one, the characters in The Handmaiden are established but can be unpredictable; for you know many of them are straight up lying but then you later find out there are multiples layers to the betrayal. Secondly, when sex is used, it’s used as a means of imprisoning certain characters into their routine while it also allows escape from the routines the characters have find themselves trapped into. And finally, when revelations are made, they not only surprise the characters but the audience itself. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the reveals is that they uncover a kernel of truth in the lies.

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“I’m a snake without virtue.” “Keep talking dirty to me”

You see a great thing about this film is the theme of a telling an attractive lie rooted in a truth, because the truth is horrifying. So while you find that the four main characters lie to each other constantly, they weren’t completely lying to each other. Without spoiling the plot, this concept is introduced where Sook-Hee tells Hideko of her mother’s last words before she died from childbirth as words of comfort to be appreciated. In the very next scene, the truth is revealed that these WERE Sook-Hee’s mother’s last words, but she was in fact executed for stealing…and she was also had a grim sense of humor. This becomes much more obvious in the second part (of three) in the film where the action switches to the point of view of another character and it’s revealed much of this person’s false history was rooted in actual tragedy.

It’s a theme that plays out extremely well as the twists and truths are revealed to the audience, but a critique of mine would be that some of the reveals happened at the “wrong” time. What I mean is that the film presents the sequence of events in a nonlinear way, and while the twist at the end of Part One hooks you in for the rest of the movie…the other revelations come in at odd times that lack a certain punch to the reveal.

Some may not be as bothered by it, but do bear in mind that my critique isn’t a deal breaker because this is one of the best films of the year in terms of set up, pay off, intrigue, violent reprisals, and carnal depictions. The film is rife with suspense as you keep second guessing who you are trusting and just how reliable our narrator is behaving. And I have to highlight the fact that it discusses a gay romance in a mature way for Eastern cinema (according to others I’ve spoken to, gay culture is still taboo over in Korea). So if that means the East gets its own Brokeback Mountain to stoke the fires of what’s permissible in art, then I’m all for it.

Of course, the Brokeback Mountain comparison isn’t idle either because we also get a very intense gay sex scene that sticks out in my mind (that’s what she said). Now, I normally don’t draw attention to sex scenes in films because a) it can be taken the wrong way (like those who thought guys were only seeing Black Swan to see Natalie Portman and Milan Kunis bump uglies even though it’s a fucking phenomenal film); and b) I don’t want to discourage the use of sex scenes in cinema as we feature (definitely hypocritically) vast amounts of violence and no one bats an eye. That being the case, it’d be remiss of me I didn’t talk about the scene’s inclusion in the film and why it should be important. There may some light spoilers in this section, so skip the end for review’s climax.

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“Oh fuck you dude, that was TOO obvious”

Throughout the film, we discover Lady Hideko is the reader for her uncle’s antique erotica collection. The Japanese smut fiction describes a variety of BDSM techniques that’s gawked at and soaked up  (that’s what she said) by all the men she reads this stuff to. But her position is one of subservience and Hideko is given no agency of her own to even enjoy what she’s reading.

But enter Sook-Hee and the dynamic changes entirely. For the first time in her life, she wants what she’s always read at the behest of her extremely creepy uncle and she embraces it fully. So they get down and dirty for a solid five to ten minutes in a way that some people may claim is reminiscent of pornography. I’d agree with them, but I don’t think that weakens the film in any way. As I said, given everything these two characters go through, their consummation of their bond is what this film is leading up to so it becomes important for the characters and the audience to understand what’s so great about it.

Further, this film provides an excellent mirror to Fifty Shades of Grey by accurately portraying what Christian Grey would look like to a normal person: a manipulative, violent, fucking psychopath. Hell the movie gives you TWO Christian Greys for the price of one to demonstrate different degrees of creepiness, emotional and sexual manipulation, and fucked up attitudes towards women. And as an extra special FUCK YOU to Fifty Shades, the women demonstrate how BDSM is used in a consensual relationship that feels earned and not exploitative.

The actors, the writers, and the director of The Handmaiden all came together to craft a damn fine suspense thriller that also has far more interesting things to say about sex both in culture and in cinema at large. And Park Chan-wook’s style of oppressive, moody atmosphere contributes to the characters’ own paranoia of who to trust and what they should do. This movie is an absolute ride and is likely winding up in the running for me and one of the best films of 2016. Tis’ the season for good films, so check this out in theaters (but leave your kids at home). This is a high…

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