I went into The Handmaiden knowing next to nothing about it other than it was meant to be amazing and there was a lot of graphic sex which seems like the right amount of information to have leading into this film. I’ll try and keep details sparse in case, god forbid, someone else reads this and they haven’t seen it because the lack of knowledge going in really let me sink into the mystery and allure of this film.
Normally I find that if a film relies to heavily on a big twist at the end, the body of the film is fairly lackluster. The Handmaiden has a lot of twists though, for the most part, they aren’t saved til the end of the film and they inform the narrative in ways that should reward multiple rewatches. One of the central themes of the film is the construction of identity which is beautifully demonstrated through its three part structure each from the view point of another character, allowing you to see a character you were previously aligned with from an outside perspective of vice versa. This and the non-linear structure of the film allow for some rewarding script writing with clever lines peppered throughout that will cause you to reevaluate prior scenes and character motivations as you go along. Granted this isn’t some groundbreaking structure, and to be fair the film never really does anything particularly groundbreaking, but everything it does, it does just so damn well.
The film is just BEAUTIFUL from start to finish, set in Korea under Japanese occupation in the 1930s, the bulk of the action takes place in a large mansion, split with one half in Japanese style, the other English. The production design, from the sets, to the costumes and props and really just anything that might be on screen is intricately designed, presenting an impossibly perfect image of the era and the fashions of the time (although probably modernised). Everything in this film feels deliberate, especially in regards to the cinematography, almost every image is framed perfectly and the camera glides precisely without a single moment of shakiness.
Anchored by two fantastic performances from the lead actresses, Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri, the film goes to some pretty extreme places but rather than walking away feeling disturbed as you might from Oldboy, I ended up feeling quite empowered and positive. Despite the content of my little write up, the film isn’t perfect, I found the last third less gripping than the two leading up to it but thats really not saying much, it was over 2 weeks ago that I saw this so exact details are hazy. But in short, this is a beautiful film (in every respect) which I could happily write essays on the themes of, but unlike many thematically dense films it manages to stay fun and engaging whilst also being something of a film-making masterpiece.