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The Handmaiden - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Handmaiden
Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: C+

Well, this review will have to be an unusual one. I'll just be up front about that. I'm not sure how fair I can be to this almost astonishingly well-reviewed film when I could hardly follow what was going on. That may be largely because I went to see it right after consuming two stiff margaritas. I was much relieved to hear after the film was over that the person I went to see it with couldn't really follow the story either. Over and over we both thought to ourselves, what's going on? To be fair, the person I went to see it with was also drunk. She not only also had two margaritas, but some sake and even a small can of sparkling wine during the movie. We are maybe not the best judges of how good this movie is.

I can tell you this much for sure: The Handmaiden is beautifully shot, on lavishly decorated sets that evoke Japan-occupied Korea during the first half of the 20th century. There's a slight bit of history for you, I guess. American audiences aren't widely exposed to this specific time and place.

Fans of the original Korean film Oldboy (2003) may be interested in this one, as it's also directed by Chan-wook Park. The story is much different, though, albeit convoluted enough that even re-reading the plot as written on Wikipedia makes me think I would have had a hard time following even if I were completely sober and, you know, not drowsy. I was still able to glean that the point of view shifted multiple times: first it's that of a pickpocket who is sent to pose as the title Handmaiden to an heiress. She's sent by a conman intent on marrying the heiress and swindling her for her fortune.

The film is separated in three parts, and in the second, we find out things are not as they seem when the point of view shifts to that of the heiress. The thing that the trailer and promotional materials doesn't quite make explicitly clear is how gay it gets from here -- the women discover a lust for each other and subsequently fall in love. This is really what the entire story hinges on, but frankly, its depiction transparently indicates that the movie was directed by a man. Another lesbian sex scene involving scissoring? Really? Yawn.

That said, there's still something refreshing about how female-centric The Handmaiden is. There are key male parts, particularly that of the conman as well as the heiress's uncle who forces her to read from his collection of erotica to guests -- to be sure, there's some odd stuff in here. Chan-wook Park seems to want us to see this as having a feminist subtext, and that part he doesn't exactly nail. The characters are compelling enough as individuals but they don't come across as a particularly realistic lesbian couple.

It seems likely that multiple viewings of The Handmaiden could have its rewards, both because of the new perspective on the plot twists, and just a broader strengthening of comprehension. I seem to be in the minority on this part, however: I just don't feel the need to watch it again. It had no genuine hook for me. Given that it's a foreign film with subtitles (yellow text for Japanese and white for Korean), it's not likely to be for large American audiences either. This is another one of those movies beloved by critics but destined to be ignored by most of the rest.

Overall: B-
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