The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)

I shouldn’t be surprised that writer/director Chan-wook Park (Stoker) was drawn to Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith. Both artists love complex tales, intense emotional entanglements, and dark humor. This story is no exception.

Park has produced a tale much closer to Waters’ original than an earlier adaptation of this story that was produced for the BBC. While both versions focus on the developing relationship between the two young women at the center of the film, Park’s approach is less hesitant around the darker side of the people and the plot. Both are good, but in very different ways, and Park’s is ultimately more involving as layers upon layers of the character are peeled away. This film also continues Park’s journey away from the hyper-violent and disturbing imagery that started with Stoker’s Gothic sensibility and loops back to his earlier days with its focus purely on the nature of love and humanity in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK.

Tae-ri Kim and Min-hee Kim dominate this film and can alternately steal and crush your heart as they make their way through life and discover one another. Park films their development with care and in detail but without ever making it feel voyeuristic; it is the best and loving version of the material being read by Kim’s character.

What this story is and how it works is something you should discover for yourself: From the interaction and threaded tale, to the tension between Korean and Japanese cultures and language that battle on the screen and within the various characters. It is beautifully filmed and intense in unexpected ways. It may well be my favorite of his films to date and one worth rewatching down the road.

The Handmaiden

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