If the title of this post didn’t grab you, then I really don’t know what will. I just watched The Handmaiden directed by Park Chan-wook. That’s right, the guy that directed Oldboy adapted a neo-Victorian novel (Fingersmith by Sarah Waters) and placed it in his native Korea. Sounds like a strange mix, right? Well I’m here to tell you that it’s the mix that you had no idea you wanted so badly.
There are a few things to talk about here. First: movie posters. Take a look at the two main posters that I have personally seen for the film.
I’m curious who thought that the darker poster conveyed anything meaningful about the film. That’s the one that I saw first and, having not read Fingersmith nor seen the miniseries based on the book (which has Sally Hawkins and is now high on my to-watch list), I mistakenly thought it was a K-horror film. I thought the hand in the center was blackened or covered in something dark. Turns out it is, but it’s just a glove. The only thing that’s definitely present in the film that’s also present in the poster is the fact that Hideko and Sook-hee are both being manipulated by the men in their lives, yet they stay connected to one another despite all of this imposed control. The other poster is much more intriguing to me because it’s not trying to convey story or genre to me, only create interest. This is part of a larger discussion about movie posters (and trailers, don’t get me started on trailers) and how advertising as a whole works. But I’m not in advertising, I didn’t go to school for advertising, so I don’t feel like I should get into that here, I’m here to talk about this fantastic film.
Next thing I want to talk a little bit about is the story itself. And what I want to say about it is that I want to say nothing about it. I didn’t link the trailer to this one up top this time because the less you know going in, the better. I hadn’t seen the trailer (only that horrible dark poster) and I was amazed by the narrative urgency I felt while watching, even at a length of 145 minutes. Part of this urgency comes from the structure of the film (which apparently matches the novel) which sees it split into three named parts. Sometimes such blatant act breaks seem unnecessary, but in the hands of a good director it adds a subtle push forward that is overall very helpful. The best other example I can think of is Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream
If you’ve read the novel, seen the other miniseries, or don’t care about going in completely fresh, here’s the trailer:
There were a few moments that made me laugh very hard. Some were in dialogue, but mostly it was Park’s incredible talent with staging and composition that caused the humor (or awe, or sadness, or anger. Seriously, this guy is a master) which is one thing I at least knew to expect from Park regardless of poster. I won’t go so far as to say you won’t even need the subtitles for this one, as is the case for several of Park’s other films, because there are two languages spoken in the film and what they’re saying does deliver a lot of the dramatic heft of the film. Or if you’re fluent in Korean and Japanese, then I suppose you won’t need the subtitles. I, however, can’t say a word in either language.
I will also say that this one got an R rating for very good reason. There’s violence, but that’s not terribly overt. There are some very graphic love scenes, and the only reason I mention this is if you are a little more sensitive to that kind of thing, or plan on seeing this with your grandma (that’s so cool that your grandma is a big Korean cinema fan!), you may want to know ahead of time.
I could go on, but I hope I have made a strong enough case already. This is an awesome movie about patriarchal hegemony, language/knowledge, class struggle, and South Korea itself. See it.