The Handmaiden: twist your brain and gird your loins

Sometimes, when walking into a movie, the less you know the better. Sometimes even a trailer can give you the wrong impression of the film and give away vital information regarding the movie that you are about to witness.  Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s  newest masterpiece, The Handmaiden, is one of those films.  Having previously screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival to sold out crowds as well as receiving a standing ovation at Cannes, The Handmaiden is a sexually driven crime drama that is not to be missed.  The screenplay has been adapted from the novel Fingersmith, written by British author Sarah Waters, but the film gives an eastern twist to a British tale.

handmaiden4The Handmaiden is told in 3 parts – each through a different person’s perspective and each revealing more and more twists and turns than the last. Set in 1930s South Korea, the film follows con-artists Sook-Hee and Count Fujiwara as they try to swindle the inheritance from heiress, Lady Hideko. The film start slowly and it’s difficult initially to get a handle on what’s going on. Chan-Wook jumps from present day to flashbacks so it takes a while to understand which timeline we are in, however, it doesn’t take long to get swept up in the events of the film. The Handmaiden is a thriller, and more often that not you will find yourself with your mouthing hanging open wondering how you didn’t see that coming earlier.

The cinematography of the film is stunning. In a world where it is not unusual to see 15 cuts for just one line of dialogue, The Handmaiden at times utilises long drawn out shots that accentuate the importance of the dialogue and scene taking place on screen. This movie however is not for the squeamish. Chan-Wook certainly does not shy away from sexual elements of the film. Providing the longest and most graphic sex scene I have ever witnessed in a movie, The Handmaiden embraces the naked human body.  However, at no point is the nudity used as anything other than an artistic celebration of the human sensuality. At no point is the sexuality of the film used just to lure in viewers (not pointing fingers, but you know who you are E.L James)

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Clocking in at just under 2 and a half hours, at times the movie felt drawn out. Though necessary, certain scenes could have been shorter. You got the impression that they were only a part of the film because the director couldn’t bear to cut the scene shorter and ruin the aesthetic of the camera shot. At other points, Chan-wook risks undermining the viewers’ intelligence by shooting scenes from multiple camera angles in order to make a point. There’s only so many times angles at which a box needs to be shown for the viewer to understand that something sacred is inside of it.

Towards the end of the film I caught myself thinking “wow what an incredible way to finish a film”, only to see the black screen transition to yet ANOTHER scene.  However, with cinematic masterpieces such as The Handmaiden it is a small price to pay for a beautifully shot thriller of a film. Don’t let the length of the film scare you away – The Handmaiden is breathtaking film, not to be missed.

The Handmaiden opens in Australia on October 13th

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