By: Nick Askam
Set in the 1930s, The Handmaiden is a story about a woman who is hired to be the handmaiden, or maid, to a rich Japanese woman named Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). The handmaiden’s name is Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim). Sook-Hee is hired by a conman, Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) who is attempting to steal Lady Hideko’s fortune. In a series of twists and turns, Sook-Hee needs to decide if she’s going to play along with her boss or try to save Lady Hideko from her Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) and the Count.
It’s actually a thrilling movie, based off the book “Fingersmith” by Sarah Walters, and will end up keeping you on the edge of your seat for most of the film. (It should be noted that the book takes place in 19th Century London while the film takes place in 1930s Japan, so the scenario has been re-imagined for the movie).
This film is directed by Chan-wook Park, who previously directed other great movies like Oldboy. He has an amazing ability to keep you hooked and attentive at each moment. I really don’t like pausing movies, but sometimes the tension was so high that I just had to sit there for a second to calm down. He’s one of the few directors that makes me feel that way. The way he frames his scenes and the general way that his plot movies genuinely surprises and amazes me each time I watch one of his films.
The plot is broken down into three parts. These three parts aren’t linear in storytelling. The way that they’re used though is to show the greater picture of what is going on and I like the choice for that. It keeps the plot engaging and has an air of mystery to it that increases the tension. The greatest plot device that is used is a general horror that’s captured. The way the opening bits are laid out make this movie feel way scarier. I loved how it played out! It was grounded and started to wear on you about 20 minutes in.
This is a well-acted film. There’s no question about it. The way that Min-hee, Tae-ri, and Jung-woo interact in such way that makes it feel like you’ve just considered a portion of these people’s lives. That outside of the movie, they’re just living their normal lives. I thought the film was so organic in the way that it connected people. I think it made their problems and their fears that much more real. I felt like I was a part of their little secret of what was going on in the house with Lady Hideko. I felt like I was the one who was holding all the secrets and was hoping that no one would find out. That’s just an element of what makes this film great.
Something that is overlooked when talking about this film is its comedy, in my opinion. The physical and verbal comedy is great. It makes you laugh when you least expect knowing how dark a story like this can be. The movie almost tricks you into believing that nothing will ever go right and then something makes you laugh. It humanizes what the struggle is and makes you want to keep watching and get more invested. This humanization is what makes you root for every character despite knowing that some of their intentions are horrible. It’s what makes you want to believe that one side is right when they clearly aren’t. These hard decisions of who to side with force the viewer to actively root for the demise of someone.
Overall, there’s a reason that this film is my favorite of the year. The way that it jerks you around and hopes that you get the nuanced messages it’s constantly throwing you. The movie believes that you have a fully functioning brain and doesn’t hand you anything. If you pay enough attention, then you understand all the struggles of the characters. If you don’t, you better hope that you hold on because you will be taken for a ride. I loved the characterization, setting, and time period. They all work together to form something great. That something great is this movie, The Handmaiden.