From a production standpoint, The Handmaiden is easily one of the best films of the year. The costumes, set design, and lighting are all immaculate, and an incredible amount of detail reveals itself as we plunge deep into Park Chan-Wook’s mesmerizing world. The film distinguishes among its influences–Victorian, Japanese, Korean–but it also allows them to slide around each other like snakes, lines crossed and blurred with dark implications simmering underneath. The film’s universe is fun and alluring, pitch-black and mysterious. Everything has an erotic undertone. It’s rarely uninteresting to watch, and the themes relating to female sexuality–especially as it contrasts with that of the males in this story–are worthy of extensive discussion.
The brilliant central performances do a lot of the heavy lifting here, and Min-hee and Tae-ri in particular shine as their characters navigate their sweet, sensual, and oftentimes convoluted relationship. Convoluted is a good descriptor for the narrative as a whole as well, the three part shifting POV structure leading to a muddled middle act. However, convoluted isn’t necessarily always a bad thing in this case, as even the film’s strangest tangents possess a grotesquely fun flair to them. Like The Neon Demon earlier this year, The Handmaiden doesn’t really fall into a ‘style over substance’ hole; instead, it questions whether we should really be separating the two.
Photo credit: The Handmaiden