The Handmaiden is a film from Park Chan-wook, whose Oldboy has been on my never-ending to-watch list for some time, but now my Park cherry has been popped with this 1930s-set tale of well-to-do Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who hires new handmaiden, or rather, has her hired by her staff, since being rich means never having to lift a finger… and this can sometimes be your downfall if no-one has your best interest at heart.
The new girl, Sook-Hee (the achingly gorgeous Kim Tae-ri) is brought in to attend to her every beck and call, but what the Lady doesn’t know is that the man who’ll be wooing her, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) – and this is explained early on, so isn’t a spoiler – is planning to marry her (as most suitable suitors would), then lock her up in a madhouse and run off with all off her monety. Sook-Hee is known to Hideko as Okju – to keep her cover – as she’s in on the whole scam, too. And never mind the fact that the Lady is meant to be promised another, Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong), often referred to as The Master.
However, while the Count’s doffing the Lady’s cap, Sook-Hee gets jealous and wants to be with her, too. Cue ‘Blue Is The Warmest Colour‘-style shenanigans in a couple of scenes.
In a film where there’s some really weird stuff going on at times, not least with signs of madness rearing up in Hideko’s family as she talks about having an aunt who hung herself.
Around 70 minutes in, as Part One gives way to Part Two, there’s a twist I won’t reveal, but which feels like it’s also the point where the film started to completely derail, before getting back on track around 35 minutes later. For reasons I can’t go into – to avoid spoilers – while there were some intriguing elements of Part Two, overall, it did start to give me quite a headache and that derailing bit was boring me to tears.
That said, when I’m watching a film for the first time, and there’s more than one version available, I’ll always lean towards the one that’s the more definitive version. I haven’t looked up the shorter one to see what it misses out, but if a film’s to be given the best chance, it has to be seen in the one best served by the director. For all its faults, it’s a shame the full version wasn’t made available in cinemas. Often, studios try and get a film under two-and-a-half hours, as cinemas baulk at longer films unless they know they can get bums on seats (e.g. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which even has a version over three hours with extra IMAX footage – which has never seen the light of day in the UK, on any format), but that’s because cinemas care more about profits than the films they show.
So – and to not divulge too much, I think Part One was okayish, and would’ve brought it up to 6-7/10, but then Part Two started with 30 minutes which bored me to tears, and then either treaded water or looked like it was trying to undo the work of the first part. Then there’s a shorter third part which throws the baby out with the bathwater.
Overall, The Handmaiden feels like some daft early ’90s thriller – and other movies I’ll list in the spoilery bit below – but a thriller they’ve spun out into nearly three hours, when around 105 minutes would’ve done the trick *far* better.
(Bound, Raising Cain, plus comedy with Nine To Five and elements of Thelma and Louise – so, how come it’s such a critically-acclaimed movie when it’s mostly a mish-mash of other things? Because it has subtitles? That usually works for The Guardian)
BTW, those scenes which go a bit ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour‘ made me realise that’s another film which lasted just shy of three hours… but with particular scenes where the participants were anything BUT shy 😉
On a more upbeat ending to this review, the film has a great, fairly modern-sounding score from Jo Yeong-wook, despite the period setting, and it’s also intriguing that the film has dialogue which changes from Korean to Japanese mid-sentence, for reasons which will become clear as you watch it.
And no, I’m not so great with my languages that I can quickly tell when someone’s jumping from Korean to Japanese and back again, but the former is in white subtitles, while the latter are in yellow.
Filmed in Anamorphic Hawk Scope, the film is presented in the original theatrical 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio and in 1080p high definition, and brings the stunning period setting to life in crystal clear detail with zero defects. I’m watching this on a 50″ Panasonic plasma TV, and yes, there’s a DVD of the film, but if you’re going to watch it, get the Blu-ray Special Edition. It contains both versions of the film and, at the time of writing, is £15.99 compared to the regular Blu-ray’s theatrical edition at £12.99.
As you’d expect, this isn’t a special effects piece, but the aforementioned score, in the DTS HD-MA 5.1 audio, really compliments the film.
The extras are as follows. Note that the first three are on disc one (the theatrical version), while the rest are on disc two (the extended version), so if you buy the Special Edition, which I’ve linked to from this review, then you’ll get the lot:
- Interview with director (59:51): This is a BFI Q&A interview with the director. Before it started properly, they had a brief few words from Park, before his producer and translator, Wonjo Jeong, gave the English version. Hence, at first, I assumed Artificial Eye had forgotten to subtitle this! Well, there are no subs, but Mr Jeong does his job admirably.
I didn’t watch the whole thing, but at the top, it’s introduced as lasting around 75 minutes when it was recorded… but there’s not quite that long here. Film clips were included at the time, so I expect they’ve been excised here.
- Trailer (1:55): For once, a trailer neatly gives a flavour of a film without giving ANY spoilers. Compare that to most Hollywood equivalents that just run through the entire movie from start to finish!
- Audio Description: Does exactly what it says on the tin.
- Making Of (5:07): Just very brief soundbites from the director and key cast and crew members, summing up how much they enjoyed making the film and working
- Cast Introduction (0:26): A brief ‘hello’ from the three leads.
- Cannes Premiere (1:31): A glance at dialogue-free footage from Cannes, set to a short piece of the score.
- Director Interview (1:44): Little more than extra soundbites in this short piece.
The menu has the theme in the background while selections are brilliantly made from individuals which relate to elements within the film (no spoilers before you watch it, though, although then again, they ARE on the cover). Subtitles are in English and (sigh), I know that Artificial Eye rigidly stick to 12 chapters per disc, but come on, guys, it’s a near THREE-HOUR MOVIE!!!
Running time: 169 minutes
Released: August 7th 2017
Widescreen: 2.35:1 (Anamorphic Hawk Scope)
Sound: DTS HD-MA 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Languages: Korean and Japanese together
Disc Format: BD50
Director: Park Chan-wook
Producers: Syd Lim and Park Chan-wook
Screenplay: Park Chan-wook and Jeong Seo-kyeong (inspired by the novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters)
Music: Jo Yeong-wook
Sook-Hee: Kim Tae-ri
Lady Hideko: Kim Min-hee
Count Fujiwara: Ha Jung-woo Ha
Uncle Kouzuki: Jo Jin-woong
Miss Sasaki: Kim Hae-suk
Aunt of Lady Hideko: Moon So-ri
Junko: Nana Ha-na
Young Hideko: Jo Eun-hyung
Hideko’s Mother: Takagi Rina
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.