Cinematic Releases: The Handmaiden (2016) - Reviewed

South Korean provocateur Park Chan-Wook is one of the undisputed masters of modern cinema, having broke new ground with his Vengeance Trilogy and his recent English language feature Stoker.  With his new romantic drama The Handmaiden, the Kafkian maestro has turned over another impeccable masterpiece that evokes every ounce of his precise and dynamic visual splendor, penchant for extreme violence and fiery, raw sexuality dripping from the edges of his exquisitely tuned frame.  Transposing Welsh author Sarah Waters’ Victorian era novel Fingersmith into South Korea under Japanese colonial rule, the auteur’s first period piece may be his most daring and oddly hopeful work to date.  Filtering the forbidden homoerotic romantic longings of the Wachowski’s Bound through the prism of Chan-Wook’s own fetishistic carnalities recently seen in his vampire film Thirst, the distinguished director has made second to his screwball comedy I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay his most triumphant love story without losing sight of his razor sharp edge, whip snapping wit and desire to see his characters’ stories through to their own logical ends however oppressive they may be.  Never one to take the safe or easy route, Chan-Wook’s classy period romance easily eclipses the likes of Blue is the Warmest Color, Black Swan and the recently released Carol in terms of its utterly transcendent journey into steamy homoeroticism and fearlessness in declaring itself.  Only a director with Chan-Wook’s clout, stature and confidence could have produced anything remotely like it and for the uninitiated may have made his most commercially appealing film yet while still serving up all of the transgressions the director’s fans have come to know and love.

Going into a Park Chan-Wook film, one must use all of their senses with the sound design and musical score being as vital as the final image on screen.  To see a Park Chan-Wook film is to hear it as well and with The Handmaiden he has easily produced one of the loveliest sounding films of 2016.  Let’s take for instance frequent collaborator Jo Yeong-Wook’s soundtrack, which can’t help but arrest the ears the moment the opening cue begins to play out.  Having already displayed an uncanny ability for creating wholly original and unforgettable main themes for Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and Thirst, the composer returns with a score that is at once classical and modern.  Think of the central theme for Downton Abbey with the grandiose and passionate emotional weathers of Oldboy which resonate and linger with every listen.  Outside of Cliff Martinez’ score for The Neon Demon, I really can’t think of an original score this year that burrowed itself so deeply into my psyche before the end credits began.  As always expected, Chan-Wook is as gifted a director of the 2.35:1 panoramic widescreen frame and 5.1 surround sound sonic experience as he is of his actors who go out on a limb and give their all in performances that are vulnerable, naked and from the heart.  When Choi Min-Sik scarfs down a live octopus in Oldboy, for instance, we felt a very real flesh and blood performance happening onscreen and in The Handmaiden its two leading ladies Kim Min-Hee and Kim Tae-Ri more or less shed their skins to reveal powerfully raw passions with palpable conviction.  Like Roger Ebert once said of Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd’s performances in Bug, these are actresses diving over the cliff without the aid of a safety net below, going for broke while never losing sight of their mutual goals.  

Much like Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, his violent tale of female empowerment in a repressive society still in the throes of social transformation isn’t for all tastes and those accustomed to his out-of-nowhere forays into shocking brutality and explicit gore will not be disappointed here.  Seeing a Park Chan-Wook film with a packed audience is always a treat for the seasoned filmgoer aware of what they’re getting into as a mixture of nervous giggles intermingled with groans radiate through the theater.  Looking back at the director’s career over the past decade, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance will always remain my personal favorite in spite of it being known as the film that nearly ended his career.  That said, The Handmaiden was a truly wonderful filmgoing experience for those who like their period dramas with somewhat sharper claws and their actors passions to be as real and raw as blood.  In an era where the LGBT romance film is stronger than ever, for my money The Handmaiden is the most artistically successful and emotionally engrossing entry I’ve seen yet.  Not everyone will agree but I was enthralled and the film hasn’t left me alone since seeing it.  Park Chan-Wook is officially back in cinemas ready to upend our expectations, challenge our sensibilities and take viewers on a roller coaster ride only a master filmmaker of Chan-Wook’s caliber could possibly tell.


 - Andrew Kotwicki