The Handmaiden is one of those films that you want to discuss with people as soon as it ends. Which is unfortunate, because the beauty of it, apart from the absolutely gorgeous visuals throughout, comes from watching events unfold, and enjoying every twist and turn. So I'll try not to give too much away here, which may mean a plot summary is briefer than usual.
Basically, a conman (Ha Jung-woo, portraying a character who goes by the name of Count Fujiwara) wants to woo a young woman (Lady Hideko, played by Kim Min-hee). Lady Hideko is set to eventually marry her uncle (Cho Jin-woong), which will allow him to get his hands on her fortune, because it's known to a few people that he aims to have her declared insane soon after their marriage. And that's where the handmaiden of the title comes in. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a skilled deceiver and thief, hired by the conman to work for, and befriend, Lady Hideko, helping to sway her opinion and convince her that she is falling in love with the Count.
Directed by Park Chan-wook, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Chung Seo-Kyung (based on the novel "Fingersmith", by Sarah Waters), The Handmaiden is every bit as good as you have already heard it is. It's engrossing, the plotting is superb, and it explores various sexual and power dynamics in a way that can become quite graphic without ever feeling tasteless or exploitative.
Separated into three distinct segments, this is a perfect example of how runtime doesn't really matter when the story is strong enough. Running at approximately 144 minutes, in the standard cut (there's also an extended version to check out, and I will), this really flies by as viewers are thrown into the initial situation before getting to know the characters, and then being shown a different perspective on things. I wouldn't say that all of the twists and turns are completely unpredictable, rather they pile up in a way that makes things much more satisfying for viewers. The rug being pulled out from under your feet can be enjoyable cinematically, but it's somehow even more enjoyable to have that rug pulled out and a different one placed under you by a dextrous expert.
As well as the great script, direction, cinematography, and musical score, the performances are no small help in drawing you in and making this a wonderful viewing experience. Tae-ri and Min-hee are the leads, essentially, and play their parts beautifully. Both are 100% believable, even as they run through a variety of motivations and emotions. Jung-woo and Jin-woong also do fantastic work, working well with their relatively single-minded characters. Kim Hae-sook and Moon So-ri have much smaller roles, the former being quite nasty and the latter quite lovely, but both also make an impact with their turns.
I am not sure what is holding me back from giving this a perfect score. I suspect that I have to rewatch it some time and see how well it all holds up, but there's every chance that future viewings will elevate this to absolute modern classic status. Which allows Park Chan-wook to remain one of my absolute favourite directors working today. I have seen about 6 or 7 of his movies, and none of them have been anything less than very good indeed. I'll always be keen to see what he next gives us. In the meantime, maybe I should get ready to watch the extended version of this film.
Buy this lovely edition here.
Americans can buy a disc here.