The new film from South Korean legendary filmmaker Chan-wook Park has all the makings of a lurid sex thriller but comes up feeling too slight to leave a mark.
Thirteen years ago, the film Oldboy was released and practically shouted the name of Chan-wook Park as a South Korean filmmaker to be reckoned with. Oldboy holds up to this day as one of the finest foreign films of the 2000s, shocking and visceral and emotional all at once. The director’s new film The Handmaiden aims to disturb and haunt your memories in the same way that no one is able to forget Oldboy’s amazing ending.
But The Handmaiden doesn’t quite have the emotional investment or twisty plot that would’ve elevated it to match those former heights. The film feels slight and leaves you shrugging instead of gasping, which is a severe disappointment that’s perhaps left mostly to blame on a screenplay that doesn’t hook into our imaginations. The characters live in a world that doesn’t feel especially well thought-out. Despite a perfectly fine cast and some outstanding production values, The Handmaiden does not get to have its cake and eat it too.
There’s also a whole lot of graphic lesbian sex, sometimes presented in real time. As an erotic thriller, The Handmaiden gets half of the descriptor completely right. Sadly, those moments are few and far between in a bafflingly long two and a half hour runtime.
In 1930s Korea, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a poor swindler whose only source of income comes from the pockets of the men she steals from. She’s a con artist and a grifter, doing what she can to get by. An offer from a Japanese man calling himself Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) presents an opportunity to step up her con game to a whole new level while possibly providing the financial freedom she’s long desired.
There’s a widowed heiress named Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) living with her Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) and sitting on a huge fortune. Fujiwara’s pitch to Sook-Hee is simple enough on the surface: gain the trust of Hideko by working intimately with her as her personal handmaiden, and convince her to marry Fujiwara. After the marriage is official, Fujiwara will have Hideko committed to a mental institution, running off with every cent she has and splitting it with Sook-Hee.
It’s a plot that we’ve seen before, including the inevitable reveal of backroom double-crossings and side deals that would twist fate against the relatively innocent Sook-Hee. Further complicating matters is Hideko’s twisted relationship with her uncle; it’s revealed that Hideko’s aunt killed herself years prior, leaving Hideko as the bearer of Kouzuki’s intense sexual predilections which include the reading of pornographic stories to a room of rich, perverted old men.
Improbably catching Sook-Hee off guard and changing the direction of her intentions is the fact that she falls head-over-heels in love with Hideko. In fact, the two fall in love with each other. And they have passionate, hardcore sex. It’s this relationship that steers the course of the events that follow, leaving the men confounded, enraged, and blue-balled.
There’s no denying Park’s skill as a director; he feels at one with his camera as ever before and does present some interesting framing and movements. He also doubles down on point-of-view perspective to the degree that it removes you from the viewing experience at times. It’s no doubt something you’ve never seen before, but it isn’t a sure bet that the POV from a vagina does anything to enhance the narrative or viewing experience.
At the end of the day, The Handmaiden is likely to be appreciated by Park’s die-hard fanbase while shrugged off by the majority of arthouse audiences. For a film whose story is so steeped in double-crosses and secret motivations, the movie itself is sadly lacking in surprise or suspense. Even the supposed provocative sexual content doesn’t incite any real incendiary responses, save for the genuine heat generated between Hideko and Sook-Hee.
For its technical craft alone, The Handmaiden is hard to put down as below average. And the performance of Kim Tae-ri as Sook-Hee is a real bright spot amongst the cast. Even the themes of sexual perversion, one of Park’s favorite wells to return to, are sort of titillating in a way that lands just on this side of “not creepy.”
Those looking for a sexual thrill in the underserved erotic thriller genre will definitely find enough moments to please them here. The remainder of audiences will be stonewalled, wishing the filmmakers spent as much time trying to get us off as they did themselves.
Three out of five.
The Handmaiden is Rated R and playing at select cinemas near you.