The Handmaiden is a nearly flawless movie. Every frame, every movement of the camera, every performance feels perfectly calibrated for maximum effect.
It’s also a relentlessly entertaining movie. And that might not be your first thought when I talk about a perfect movie, or even a foreign-language movie. For whatever reason, too many American moviegoers think of these sorts of films as slow-moving, austere tales of gentle longing or what have you.
And, yeah, there are some (great!) films like that. But The Handmaiden is the furthest thing you could get from an austere tale of gentle longing.
It’s a rip-roaring tale of con artists trying to pull a fast one on a rich heiress, a passionate romance, and even a hilarious comedy — and it’s sometimes all of those in the same scene.
The Handmaiden isn’t just one of the year’s best movies; it’s one of the year’s most accessible movies.
The Handmaiden keeps the best stuff about a great novel and transports it to another land
The Handmaiden is based on Sarah Waters’s terrific novel Fingersmith. Waters, who is British, tends to write stories in classic British story forms — she has a fair number of ghost stories, and Fingersmith is a Dickensian pastiche — but reorient them to be about romantic relationships between two women.
And as in Fingersmith, The Handmaiden is about what happens when a female con artist conspires with a male con artist to pose as a servant to a rich young heiress. The idea is that our hero will prime the heiress to fall in love with the con man — and then the con man will confine the heiress to a madhouse after the two elope. The two con artists will split the heiress’s considerable fortune.
What nobody counts on is that our hero and the heiress will fall in love, which complicates everything.
The Handmaiden is filled with twists and turns, and for me to tell too much more would be robbing you of much of the fun of this story. But what I love about it is the way simply making the romantic relationship at its center be between two women — instead of the more frequently told tale of a con man falling in love with an heiress he means to rip off — opens up all sorts of emotional material in the story that a more traditional tale wouldn’t have been able to get to.
When our hero, Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), and the heiress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), start to fall for each other, the movie becomes as much about love opening their eyes to how the men in their lives use and abuse them as it is about their connection. In The Handmaiden, love doesn’t just make you feel great — it also completely reorients your point of view on the universe.
The film also moves the action of Waters’s novel from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, which is under Japanese rule. This, too, opens up new facets of the story, allowing it to play with ideas of Koreans trying to pass themselves off as Japanese, the better to climb the social order.
The Handmaiden is one of the better arguments in recent memory for the idea that shifting a story’s context and setting can change everything about it. Fingersmith is a great novel, but The Handmaiden plays less like a direct adaptation and more like a really terrific cover version — one that shows you something new in a work of art you already loved.
None of The Handmaiden would work without director Park Chan-wook
South Korea’s Park Chan-wook is a director who makes incredibly complicated things look easy. His Oldboy was a relentless machine, all forward momentum and fury, and his first English-language film, Stoker, pursued its disturbed story to its logical ends, testing the audience’s mettle in the process. (I mean this as a compliment — if it works for you, Stoker really works.)
But The Handmaiden might be his best film yet. When watching it, pay attention to how frequently he keeps lots of actors in the same frame, then lets them react both to each other and to the story unfolding in front of them. This would seem to be a necessity in the tale of a complicated love triangle — we want to see Sookee react to the con man’s attempts to seduce Hideko — but you’d be surprised how many movies about similar stories forget that fact.
Park also approximates the headlong rush of falling in love with his skillful use of match cuts — an edit that cuts between two images, or two movements that seem to match each other in such a way that he can cut between settings and even time periods and suggest they’re all part of the same continuum.
In my favorite, Sookee and Hideko go from the closed-off confines of the mansion Hideko has lived in most of her life to the glorious outdoor sunshine in a quick cut between lateral movements. One step becomes a run.
Park’s films always boast great production design, and his work with Seong-hie Ryu and costume designer Sang-gyeong Jo creates a setting as vivid as you’re likely to see in a movie this year. I was particularly taken with how the house Hideko lives in is split equally between Japanese and English influences — a subtle nod toward the story’s origins in Waters’s novel.
But most of all, Park focuses at all times on the thrill of self-discovery, on the moment when you figure out that there’s more to yourself than you ever could have known. Sookee and Hideko weren't aware they could feel this level of ardor until they met each other, but the deeper they fall in love, the more Park’s filmmaking soars into the sky. It’s the kind of movie where the tiniest gesture or glance sets off not just fireworks but a full Fourth of July display.
The Handmaiden is in select theaters now. It will expand in the weeks to come.