52nd Chicago International Film Festival Screening #18: “The Handmaiden” (South Korea)

“The Handmaiden” (South Korea)
Directed by Chan-wook Park

2016-the-handmaidenYou gotta give it to Chan-wook Park (“Oldboy”, “Lady Vengeance”). He really knows how to create a beautiful looking film. He also knows how to write an epic script about incredibly simple stories. And he really understands the  psychology of reaction ie, a character’s reaction to feelings, circumstance and external decision. “The Handmaiden” ticks off all these boxes and adds an element he has not yet explored before…repressed and exposed sexuality.

This film is as close to an overt erotic feature as you’ll see this year. And not a single frame of the portrayed carnality seems unnecessary. The triad nature of the plot, its dependency on keeping secrets and the tight proximity of the characters to each other, almost demands we, as audience members, somehow experience the longing, desire and appetite laying secretly within. But the story is not about sex…its about the intense desire for that thing we most want…whatever that is.

While the pace of the film moves deliberately…it never feels dull. Using flashbacks with precision, as well as utilizing a three chapter structure, you’re all-in long before the second act. And the photography mirrors ,”Lady Vengeance” (one of the greatest films ever made), more than “Oldboy” – beautifully composed images with colors that pop off the screen. His use of contrasting foreground and background imagery and color make the intimate scenes feel like its the first time you’ve ever seen sex on film before. The film also relies heavily on its specific time and place, in this instance Japanese-occupied Korea before World War II. A time when Japan forced massive cultural change upon the citizens of Korea – including, and perhaps most importantly to the film, forcing the Japanese language on its citizenry.

The performances by the women in this film are spectacular…perfectly encapsulating both their status in this world (trapped as they are in in dual cultures), their desire for change (either in to or out of different castes), and their ability to execute the nature of that change (overcoming a male dominated system). Park has always made slow body movement…stillness…seem so natural, and Min-hee Kim executes this with ease. Kim Tae-Ri is hilarious within that same framework. They are also incredibly stunning. The men fare slightly successfully. Jin-woong Jo, while a powerful presence on screen, has trouble adjusting to the generational shifts the film calls for. And Jung-woo Ha, who was absolutely brilliant in “The Yellow Sea” (2010) seems over-matched by the women in this story. Granted, this might be the director’s intention, but a slightly stronger presence would have helped carry the story just that much further.

Finally, there is Park’s personal composer, Yeong-Wook Jo’s, score. While the music is not atypical of Korean films, it seems restrained here…allowing the director to hit you with one sense (sight) over another (aural). It’s an effective technique, even if it results in an unremarkable score.

Most importantly, it is now ten days since I screened it and, “The Handmaiden” continues to grow in my mind’s eye. The film is in theaters now and whether you are a Park fan or not, you should make time to experience it.

As an aside, the wealth of spectacular Korean films available via streaming services, is growing and growing. These are movies you must seek out…starting with the Vengeance trilogy. And if you want to see a beautifully made period war epic, watch “The Admiral: Roaring Currents”. The more you see, the more you’ll seek out.



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