The Handmaiden (2016)

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This is hands down the most perfect film I have seen so far this year. I gave a score of 5/5 to movies like The Revenant, Spotlight and The Songs We Sang. But even with these excellent films I can always find a spot that doesn’t quite sit right with me. With The Handmaiden, it is perfect; every frame handcrafted to perfection. Even with 4min of explicit sex taken away by the censors, this is still perfect every way I see it.

1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, a new girl (Sookee) is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress (Hideko) who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her domineering Uncle (Kouzuki). But the maid has a secret. She is a pickpocket recruited by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count to help him seduce the Lady to elope with him, rob her of her fortune, and lock her up in a madhouse. The plan seems to proceed according to plan until Sookee and Hideko discover some unexpected emotions.

Auteur Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden is a superb exercise in form, structure and tone. With the latter, Park (Oldboy & Joint Security Area) has achieved something extraordinary. If any scene were to linger a few seconds longer or he had decided to focus on a certain issue, the film would have veered off to a different territory. As it is, and with all the major characters’ kooky off-kilter portrayals, I can’t pinpoint whether I was watching something real or abstract. I was also kept in awe by the intricate and resplendent set-design which suggests something dark and Gothic is working the undercurrents. There are of course some serious girl on girl action but that never encroaches into the spine of the story.

Adapting Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, a Victorian tale awash with all manner of Dickensian motifs, Park spins an engrossing tale that ebbs and flows with a Hitchcockian suspense; it withholds as much as it discloses; it is an erotic tale that beats with raw fervour. It is at once a love story but also a menagerie showcasing human beings in their vilest forms. Park’s finger hovers over all the buttons, teasing us gleefully but it is with the ultimate restraint that he never descends down to the usual tropes. The story is divided into three chapters; each told from a different character’s perspective. The structure is Rashomon-esque but Park puts his own stamp on it. The film may be nearly 2.5 hours but I hardly moved in my seat; my senses kept spellbound as each twist hits me hard. When it ended I couldn’t believe 2.5 hours have whizzed by. The plot is pulsating and it never lets up. There’s even an octopus in it! This is definitely the most perfect film I have seen this year. You may not agree with me but for me this is cinema of the masterclass level.

 

5 / 5

Edit: I have recently seen the unedited version and my original thoughts remained unchanged. This is a masterpiece.

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