A Little Bit of Everything: “The Handmaiden” Offers Gothic Romance, Horror, Comedy, and More

The Stoker director returns with a complex, compelling (and carnal) genre tour.

What’s most impressive about Korean director Park Chan-wook’s (Stoker, Oldboy) latest film, The Handmaiden, is its ability to seamlessly jump between genres. If hard-pressed to confine it to just one, I’d call it a gothic romance, but it manages to be so much more than that.

One moment, you’re watching a thriller, the next a horror movie. You blink, and it’s become a good-old-fashioned caper. At times it borders on erotica, and there’s a healthy dose of physical comedy in there too. But rather than making it feel disjointed, genre-hopping serves The Handmaiden well—occasional slapstick provides levity during some of the film’s darker moments (and there are quite a few of those), and a meticulously plotted heist holds your interest when the romance threatens to get mushy.

Set in 1930s Colonial Korea, which was under Japanese rule at the time, The Handmaiden follows Sook-Hee (Tae Ri Kim), a pickpocket hired to pose as a maid. Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), a con man disguised as a Japanese Count, enlists Sook-Hee in his plan to marry moody heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), send her to the madhouse, and steal her inheritance. If that sounds complicated, you don’t know the half of it—the fact that that synopsis contains no spoilers should give you some indication of how many twists and turns the plot takes.

But Chan-wook pulls it off flawlessly, using every tool at his disposal to service the plot, and if at any point during the film you feel lost, it’s because he wants you to. For one, Chan-wook uses the camera as a tour guide, using techniques typically reserved for 3D to direct your focus and provide insight into each character’s mindset. The sets are simultaneously majestic and claustrophobic, echoing Lady Hideko’s lifestyle, and Chan-wook’s gift for building tension is unmatched.

If at any point during the film you feel lost, it’s because he wants you to.

Tonally, it is everything Crimson Peak should have been—moody, romantic, and slightly macabre—with performances to match. Tae-ri and Min-hee are brilliant, selling—but never over-selling—the melodrama inherent in their roles, while Ha’s Count Fujiwara is a delightful mix of charm and smarm. But Jin-woong Jo steals the show as Hideko’s domineering Uncle Kouzuki—as terrifying a monster as you’ll find in any horror movie—whose ink-stained mouth, borderline pedophilic tendencies, and affinity for shunga (Japanese erotica) informs some of the film’s more unsettling moments.

At just shy of two and a half hours, and despite a few false endings, The Handmaiden never feels long. You’ll likely spend most of it keeping track of the numerous loose ends, all of which (against all odds) Chan-wook manages to tie up, resulting in a film that in addition to being immersive and enthralling, feels well-planned and deeply satisfying. Oh, and it’s pretty sexy too. FL

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