Further cementing himself as the master of Korean cinema, Park Chan Wook is back with a new film that astounds, breaks barriers and solidifies itself as one of the most unforgettable pieces of cinema this year. Pushing boundaries is nothing new for this incredible director, who shocked audiences with his mind blowing third act in the film Oldboy, the movie for which he is most notable. I, personally, have been a fan of everything he has put out, including the Vengeance series, the vampire tale Thirst, his American debut Stoker and a deeply disturbing little short from the Three Extremes compilation called Cut, so seeing his latest as my closing screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival just felt like a delicious dessert after a long couple weeks.
The film is a deep and intricate web of deceit, following a young Japanese pickpocket, named Sook-Hee, who is employed by the leader of the group of thieves as a sort of insider. Placed in the house of a rich young heiress, Lady Hideko, her job is to convince her new master that the man she is courting is the one true partner destined to be her husband. This man is actually Sook-Hee’s boss, Count Fujiwara, who’s goal is to marry Hideko, have her committed as a mental patient and inherit her father’s estate. What he doesn’t count on is Hideko and Sook-Hee falling in love with each other in a torrid romance.
Every frame of this film is an absolute feast for the eyes, delivered by Park Chan-Wook and cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon, a many time collaborator with Chan-Wook and the eye behind last year’s Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. From the opening act, when we see the car transporting Sook-Hee to her new mansion home, darting through the trees, we feel the same awe that she does as her new world is revealed to her. It’s truly incredible. The story is also completely unpredictable, structured to always keep you a bit in the dark, as the layers are slowly and methodically pulled back until the full reveal. Based on a Victorian-era set novel of the same name, Park Chan-Wook makes this film something that feels easily like his own.
I’m a little baffled by the knowledge that South Korea never submitted The Handmaiden as an official selection for the Academy Awards, as this would easily be a shoo-in to win. The film is infinitely engaging and you will completely forget about it’s almost two and a half hour runtime. Park Chan-Wook is one of the most compelling international directors working today and his work is incomparable to any other. I will also warn that there is a sexual explicitness to The Handmaiden that will shock many people and the closing shot? Well, I can easily say that I’ve never seen something so unflinching and brazen in my entire film watching existence. This will be one of the most discussed foreign films this year, without a doubt. 5/5