It takes three to tango.
In Japan-occupied Korea, a Korean con man named Count Kujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) wants desperately to become rich and not have to worry about a single thing in his life. So, the only way to do that is when the heart of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese woman who is about to come into a great deal of money with her father’s inheritance. However, in order to do so, Kujiwara’s going to need to come up with a smart, despicable plan – what he ends up concocting is recruiting an orphaned pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to become her handmaiden, watch and listen to her every move, and inform Kujiawara on everything that happens, so that when he does come around to win Lady Hideko’s heart, he’ll have no issues. And while Sook-he is more than up to this opportunity/challenge, somehow, her and Lady Hideko get very, very close to one another; so much so that it may possibly ruin Kujiawara’s plans for fame and fortune, while also ruining the gals’ lives.
In the past few years, I’ve become more and more acquainted with Park Chan-wook and his flicks. After seeing Stoker, I realized that possibly there was more to him than just what people were telling me, not to mention that there was a lot of praise going his way. And sure, it’s understandable that not all foreign film-makers strike gold with their English-language, stateside debut, but maybe, perhaps, there was something I was missing out on?
And yes, after awhile, I realized that I was. Oldboy is still a near-perfect classic on rewatch; Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance may be slow and deliberate, but man, it’s a visual masterpiece; Lady Vengeance feels like a rehash, but has some inspiration; and Thirst, while long, still is definitely the best vampire movie to be made in the past decade or so. Of course, there’s a few that I’ve missed, but to be honest, those are the main flicks to watch if you want to know all about Chan-wook and realize that he is one of the more original voices in film today.
And that’s why the Handmaiden, for quite some time, feels like he’s back to his roots.
For one, it’s a sexy and seductive story – you can say “erotic thriller”, but that just brings back bad memories of the early-90’s and Sharon Stone flashing Newman, too much – and it hardly ever lets up on the steaminess. Chan-wook plays around with sex and gender roles, but there’s a passion to it all that doesn’t make it seem overdone; he’s not just showing these characters nude, having sex with one another, and doing all sorts of other dirty things for giggles and laughs, but more or less, to tell the story and show just how vulnerable these characters can be. It helps create some real, hard and honest tension, without resorting to the obvious avenues of twists, turns, or violence, that so often, his movies can tend to dive towards.
That’s why the performances from everyone involved are so good – they all feel like real human beings, not just caricatures that Chan-wook can toy around with, even if he does have some joy in doing so. Ha Jung-woo is downright despicable at first as Kujiwara, but after a short while, shows more heart and compassion that’s surprising, but also, quite believable; Kim Min-hee, regardless of her beauty, is able to convey countless emotions with just a look in her eye; Kim Tae-ri, with her young girl innocence, works well in a movie that never talks down to her, but shows her in an as many lights as possible; and though he comes in a bit late, Cho Jin-woong is quite evil as Lady Hideko’s creepy, perverted Uncle who doesn’t have many morals, but he’s hard not to be compelled by.
That said, what happens to the Handmaiden in the final act or so started to take me away from it.
For instance, it’s a near two-and-a-half-hour movie that, at first, doesn’t feel like it. Chan-wook is a master at pacing, knowing what’s important and what isn’t, but also knowing how to keep us glued in with certain mysteries that don’t make perfect sense right away, but with time, eventually do as they develop. However, the issue he runs into here is that he seems to pad it on just a tad much; at times, it can feel like he’s making stuff up as he goes along, which can sometimes work if you’re just constantly moving and the pace is nice, but then, it begins to slow down.
What was once a really exciting, quick, fast and electrifying tale of sex, deception and corruption, all of a sudden, turns into a slow, brooding tale of people having sex and getting spanked. I don’t know why, but for some reason, it just didn’t work for me; it seemed as if Chan-wook himself changed everything up to challenge himself more and while it’s definitely commendable, it still doesn’t quite work. Sure, his movie still looks great and the performances, if anything, get more and more emotional as they toll on, but the movie just doesn’t assist them with much of a compelling story, especially when it seems to just be weaving in and out with twists, turns and unpredictable, seemingly random plot-points.
Not what the first-half had in mind.
Consensus: Despite great performances and a very promising first-half, the Handmaiden unfortunately falls apart in the final act, with one too many plot twists and turns to make sense of.
6.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire