The Handmaiden, co-written and directed by Chan-wook Park, is a 1930's crime thriller filled with deceit, debauchery, and double crosses as a con man tries to steal an inheritance from a secluded young woman. The film features acting performances from Min-hee Kim, Kim Tae-ri, Jung-woo Ha, and Jin-woong Jo.
This film comes packed with a ton of expectation as it is being hailed as Chan-wook Park's best film in some time, which is high praise coming from the man who made Oldboy and the Vengeance trilogy. Going in, I wasn't quite sure what to expect and, coming out, I'm still not quite sure what it was I saw. This movie is equal parts comedy, drama, thriller, and Cinemax style soft core porn. Yes, seriously. The two lead women in the film are both very beautiful and they, quite often, share their unique talents both which each other and with the audience. I'd like to say it's essential to the story, but it does get a little gratuitous at times although this should not, by any means, be considered a complaint.
While the movie itself is split into three parts, it is really one story told three different times. At the end of part one, there is a huge, shocking reveal which, to me, was unexpected yet makes a lot of sense as the rest of the story unfolds. Up to that point, this is a brilliant film, shot beautifully, told masterfully, and acted out perfectly by the three primary actors. Unfortunately, most of what we get after that first big reveal is repetitive and unnecessary making the two hour and twenty minute run time seem painfully longer than it ever needed to be. If I could take this movie into the editing room, I would cut out about a half hour of material that shows us everything we've already seen just from a different perspective. By the time all of this plays out and the story comes to its inevitable unfortunately predictable conclusion, I was just happy it was finally over.
As I mentioned earlier, the quality of acting on display saves this film from being an overly excessive pile of "what the hell" and the two leading ladies are both very engaging and extremely watchable. No, I'm not just talking about when their clothes are coming off, their performances are filled with the type of subtlety and emotion that is essential to bringing their characters, who are both very flawed and unstable, to life on screen. Once again, the only downside is after the first part of the film is over everything just gets repetitive and way too long putting Park in a position to make the second and third times through more extreme and absurd in an attempt to avoid redundancy. It doesn't work.
The Handmaiden is a brilliant film. For the first hour. After that it's a confusing mess of a story. That being said, this is still a good film that is worth checking out, just be prepared for confusion, bewilderment, and a really long path to the finish line.