Review: Handmaiden at VIFF

Still from Park Chan-wook's Handmaiden

Still from Park Chan-wook's Handmaiden

After watching Handmaiden, I left the theatre feeling like everyone should know about it. A few days later, I still feel that way. Handmaiden is a masterpiece made by Park Chan-wook, a kind of emotionally elevated version of Tarantino’s films, a kind of movie I’ll watch again and again, a kind of movie I didn’t know I wanted until I saw it. It’s erotic and violent and persuasively enchanting.

But first a few things about Park Chan-wook. Wook is 53, Korean, and a 10-(plus-)time director. Apparently shy, or quiet-spoken. The rap on Park is that he saw Vertigo and thought ‘This, this is what I’ll do––i’ll make movies,’ and now, like Hitchcock, he’s a director known to deal in extremes. He foregoes the broken nail for the broken finger. He skips the slit cheek for the beheading. You won’t see anything as innocuous as a paper cut in his worlds. In Old Boy, the revenge film that gained him international recognition, there’s chopped tongue and live octopi. Unintentional incest. Kafka-esque judgments. Greasy smug anti-heroes. There’s lots and lots of revenge. 

But the real attraction in a Park production is it’s elegantly ordered story. It’s hard to describe exactly what it feels like to be taken through one of Park’s plots, but it’s something like being guided through a 12-step puzzle—‘oh,’ you realize ‘that’s how it works.’ Each puzzle is a bit different. In Old Boy the plot digs inward (think Memento), taking Russian doll off of Russian doll off of Russian doll to get to the story’s core. With Handmaiden, it’s a trip outward (think Snowpiercer). You exit the stuffy house to find the cave to find the mountainside to find the panoramic prairies to something so much bigger. With each reveal the story becomes a bit more layered than you thought it could.

As a reviewer, this is where I’m put into a dilemma. If Park Chan-wook’s films are puzzles, where the driving element is the surprise of the reveal, then even mentioning there’s a surprise softens the surprise. It’s better to go into a Park movie knowing as little as possible about the plot; the only important thing is to be convinced into going. So, instead of explaining the story’s plot and ruining the surprise, here are a few spoiler-free reasons to watch the movie:

Watch Handmaiden for the excess; there’s more humour than in most comedies, more violence than in most thrillers, and more sex than in most romances. Simultaneously, watch it for the subtlety; one of the movie’s most erotic scenes doesn’t include anything obviously sexual—there’s a purple lollipop, a bathtub, and a thimble.

Watch it for the trademark octopi. This one’s a live octopus with smoothed pads and gangly tentacles spooling out of a very small tank. 

Watch it for the Japan-occupied Korean set decoration. There are museum-like interiors, lacquer screens, filigree wallpaper, exquisite costumes and ornate exteriors. Watch it for all the colour and design.

Watch it, especially, for the unlikely, sparkling romance from the director whose specialty is slaughterhouse revenge. If you’ve watched Park Chan-wook’s movies before, you might find something sweet about this. It’s like if Radiohead were to make a comedic album. Or, closer, if Elliot Smith were to have made an album about joy. Once again, Park delivers a surprise.