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Reviewed by:
  • The Handmaiden dir. by Chan-wook Park
  • Michael C. Reiff
The Handmaiden Directed by Chan-wook Park Produced by Chan-wook Park and Syd Lim Distributed by CJ Entertainment 167 minutes

If you search for Chan-wook Park films on Netflix, you get one result: Oldboy. If a streaming service had to choose, Park's 2003 revenge thriller is a good representation of what the director is known for. The film is stylish, bleak, viscerally violent, and narratively complicated. It showcases the stylistic and formal elements Park has been known for over the past decade and a half. As the film progresses, the viewer faces cinematic provocation upon provocation, from the lurid images to the labyrinthine plotting to the layers of punishment the titular character must descend through. These structural and literary trends are replete through Park's follow-up works—notably, Lady Vengeance (2005), Thirst (2009) and his less-successful English-language debut, Stoker (2013).

If you were, however, to have made your first Chan-wook Park film 2016's The Handmaiden, you would have a very different perception of the director. In almost every pronounced way—the cinematic grammar, the narrative structure, the type of explicit and intense content—The Handmaiden is a truly radical departure for the director, a film that takes Park a full 180 degrees in a number of ways. And this is a good thing.

Chan-wook Park protagonists have often been somewhat inscrutable. Many of his characters are driven by insular revenge, fascinating in its mechanics and outcomes, but at times cold and distancing. Even at their most engaging, Park protagonists come off as cryptic, as much because of their often-warped circumstances as their internal tempests. This is reversed in The Handmaiden, which depicts three richly drawn characters, with internal monologues developed through narration and featuring notes of humanity, empathy, and (seemingly new for Park) bright notes of well-earned humor. The film begins with a Korean con artist infiltrating a rich Japanese manor, attempting to win the love of a rich heiress and ensnare her in a complicated monetary plot. This first perspective – inside the mind of the Handmaiden Tae-ri Kim – is bursting with grit, vitality, and longing. The second and third perspectives—the heiress herself and the man who hired Tae-ri Kim to implement the [End Page 104] con, respectively—feature deft characterizations and intricate layers of motive and emotion. Gone are the ciphers of Park's earlier films, which—just three years prior in 2013's Stoker—verge on self-parody, with characters portrayed as sphinx-like golems of loathing and repressed violence. The three core characters in The Handmaiden are some of Park's best, as much because of their humanity as their fascinatingly braided destinies.

Formally—both on the script page and in the image—The Handmaiden diversifies and exceeds the boundaries of Park's previous work as well. Park's narrative dexterity reached its height with the non-linear puzzlebox plot in Lady Vengeance, and has often played with unexpected leaps in chronology and layers of flashbacks within flashbacks. Here, Park presents a seemingly straight-forward plot, as Tae-ri Kim advances her con, only to loop back to the beginning of the narrative to see it from a different point of view—a mechanism Park employs twice. This narrative structure doesn't feel showy or derivative, though. Instead, it feels like the organic product of the evocative and vibrant characters Park has crafted. Tae-ri is fascinating, but so are the heiress Min-hee Kim and the con-maestro Jung-woo Ha. Additionally, each subsequent pass through the con's narrative gives startlingly new meanings to scenes that had previously seemed innocuous. Park hides narrative and emotional multitudes in plain sight, and yet each moment feels earned and structurally important once revealed.

Park's cinematic style has never been lacking in virtuosity. Indeed, even when his narratives have seemed strained, his eye for the intersection of the unsettling and the beautiful has been consistent. Additionally, his technical bravado has been paramount to his films' notoriety—from Oldboy's infamously violent and complicated tracking shots, to his ability...


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pp. 104-107
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