Friday, December 30, 2016

The Handmaiden (2016)

Director: Park Chan-wook
Notable Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jeong-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Moon So-ri

Clearing this up front, Park Chan-wook is my favorite working director. That said, there are certain things in his films, without going into a long tangent before even starting this, that I dislike. So, this isn't a fanboy review, and I will try to refrain from geeking out in a biased manner. I do love his works, and he has inspired me greatly, so naturally, that will likely shine in this review. Onward to The Handmaiden, Park's newest, and one of his best.

Set in Japan, The Handmaiden (Ahgassi) weaves an intricate and twisted tale of love that blossoms from an unexpected place, between two women of two opposing classes of society, during the 1930s. Korean man, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jeong-woo), living the facade of an upper class Japanese, hires pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), to infiltrate a rich family to steal an inheritance, that Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is having bestowed upon her, living the life of her own personal Handmaiden.

The Lady
As to be expected with a Park film, there are plenty of twists and turns, which all work, per usual, and this time around the chemistry and development of his characters are at an all-time high. These people are very lived in and everything down to the looks that project among one another, and even the slightest facial expression, is perfectly executed. From the leads, down to Moon So-ri, who is only in a scene or two, are firing on all calibers and are worthy of high praise. It is nowhere near the typical Oscar bait material that Hollywood vomits out every winter that comes, but this is a movie that is destined to be showered in awards, and it deserves every one of them. Masterful in every sense of the word.

I won't delve too deep into the story, as it is fairly simple, but the journey you are brought on is one filled with laughter, shock, disgust, love, betrayal, heartbreak, lust, and much more. It never really juggles genres like most Korean films do. It is an erotic love story, with thriller elements, albeit they are minor. There are little splashes of horror, and they are used very effectively. The black humor presented here is very akin to the humor used in his last Korean directorial, Thirst, and I believe is even a great companion piece to said film.

The Handmaiden
Chung Chung-hoon, regular cinematographer on Park's works, returns and is perhaps at his peak. The camera drifts around with such grace, capturing the bigger picture and coming in very up close and personal for the most intimate moments, and not just in the sex scenes either. No one captures actors in quite the way Chung does. The Handmaiden easily takes my favorite cinematography of 2016, no questions asked. Beautiful from first frame to last...

Cho Jin-woong, whom I have failed to mention yet, plays Kouziki, Lady Hideko's uncle. He is a perverted, very sleazy bastard and Cho delivers the repulsive goods in spades. He is loud without ever becoming obnoxious. He isn't very cartoonish and actually has some subtle moments, but he is very terrifying and his repeated mentioning of sending Lady Hideko to 'the basement' made my skin crawl every time and for that, he must be applauded.

Count Fujiwara
Ha Jeong-woo is also great and I could see him landing a best actor nomination in Korea (for either awards ceremony). He is cool and collected, very determined, sometimes idiotic, but he has a sort of natural sexiness that works quite well for his character. There isn't a ton to say on him, but a very solid performance and one that is commanding.

Lastly, addressing the sex scenes, which some found too excessive and deemed unnecessary, I found quite important and brought a believable weight to the leading ladies actions further along in the story. I thought they (the scenes) were just as detrimental as Oldboy's scene was. The extremity also seemed to fit the rushing and rapidly blossoming relationship that Sook-hee and Lady Hideko thrust themselves into. Lust depicted in a very fantastical yet realistic way.

Uncle Kouzuki
Overall, The Handmaiden is yet another master work from my favorite director and I initially had no idea what to expect going in. It is a beautiful tale and I mainly talked about more superficial and technical things, but there is great depth and beauty and plenty of layers to be explored and appreciated on further viewings. I can't find anything to complain about with the movie, and that is very rare in cinema. I can only imagine how my love for this one will grow. The Handmaiden is easily my favorite movie of 2016. Bravo!

Written by Josh Parmer

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