Park Chan-wook’s career has largely been steeped in a particular fusion of twisty revenge narratives padded with philosophical implications. His latest, The Handmaiden, feels particularly lacking in the latter area. In a 1930s, Japanese-occupied Korea, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired by conman Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to assist in stealing the fortune of a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee of Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then). The heiress lives under the strict control of her uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong)—or at least, this is the gist of the narrative as its first presented to us. From here, though, The Handmaiden is constantly prone to switching up its character alliances: the second section retells the first, but pointedly changes the context of everyone’s motivations. Park’s fervent control of narrative is on full display: every line of dialogue is positioned in such a way as to further the density of The Handmaiden‘s plot. But eventually, this game Park’s playing starts to become a little too obvious. While the material is a good fit for the master provocateur, there’s a sense of redundancy here too: All of Park’s hallmarks are deployed (sex, deception, torture), but not as skillfully, or in particularly different ways, than in, say, his popular ‘Vengeance Trilogy.’
Eventually this game Park’s playing starts to become a little too obvious. While the material is a good fit for the master provocateur, there’s a sense of redundancy too.
Missing from Park’s latest is a sense of moral consequence. In his other films, audiences tend to be lulled into a false sense of assuredness, allowing them to feel as if the violence taking place is being justified, just before disillusioning any hope for such a clear and direct interpretation. The vengeance, and violence, of The Handmaiden seems almost too inconsequentially pleasurable. No engagement with the ramifications of revenge takes shape, which frames the film as more an expression of wish fulfillment. Also missing from The Handmaiden is the kind of big climax that can often tie this filmmaker’s more disparate visions together—the film stays in its established register. That said, no other director working today knows how to titillate an audience quite like Park Chan-wook: Every zoom, tilt, or pan in The Handmaiden has a sexually charged energy, fetishizing the most minute of gestures. And as the could-be duped noble, Kim uses a surface of vulnerable fragility to keep her character distanced, resulting in a sustained uncertainty as to what role she plays in this narrative. Unfortunately, that sense of calculation elsewhere leaves The Handmaiden feeling like a mere conceptual exercise for its obsessive director.