Fantastic Fest 2016 Review: THE HANDMAIDEN

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

My first film of Fantastic Fest 2016 was an erotic thriller by the incomparable, South Korean director Park Chan-wook.  After making his English language debut with Stoker, the acclaimed filmmaker returns to his native language with an adaptation of the novel The Fingersmith.  Though the novel is by Welsh writer Sarah Walters and set in Victorian era Britain,  Chan-wook and his co-writer Chung Seo-kyung have changed the setting to Japanese colonial-ruled South Korea.  The result is a beautiful and incredible masterpiece that gave Fantastic Fest attendees much to discuss afterward and is sure to have the same impact on all audiences who get to experience this cinematic work of art.

In 1930s Korea, con artist Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) has an elaborate plan to woo the wealthy heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Minh-hee) in order to get his hands on her money.  In need of a spy on the inside, Fujiwara hires thief Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to pose as Hideko’s personal maid.  Things begin to get more complicated for Sook-hee as she and her mistress form a close bond and begin to have romantic feelings for one another.  As Sook-hee gets more involved with Lady Hideko, she discovers that there is much more going on at the estate of Lady Hideko and her stern Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong).

With The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook has made another superb, complex and astounding psychological thriller.  Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung’s screenplay is excellently written with exceptional character development and a well-constructed plot and story that builds up tension and suspense beautifully and packs several wallops when it comes to delivering surprises galore.  Those familiar with Park Chan-wook’s previous work will not be surprised to hear that his latest movie has content of both erotic and violent natures.  This movie obviously will not appeal to more reserved and conservative audiences, but fans of the South Korean director will relish in his unflinching ability to present its strong adult content in an artistically beautiful way.  Park Chan-wook may present disturbing content, but he has a reason for it all.  This movie may delve deep into sexuality, perversity, and violence, but the director uses it as a commentary on humanity.

Kudos must also be given to cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, production designer Ryu Seong-hie, and costume designer Jo Sang-gyeong for helping Chan-wook achieve his gorgeous cinematic vision.  The entire cast delivers excellent and sublime work with Kim Minh-hee and Kim Tae-ri standing out for their beautifully haunting performances and palpable chemistry that will leave audiences breathless.  Ha Jung-woo and Cho Jin-woong also deserve high praise for their outstanding and credible portrayal of two very despicable characters.

Though I missed the main opening night film of this year’s Fantastic Fest (Arrival), I am quite pleased that my first movie turned out to be one so extraordinary that it ended up being my favorite film of the festival.   I am absolutely certain that it will also be one of my favorite films of the year. To make my opening night even more exciting, director Park Chan-wook attended the screening, introduced the movie and did a Q & A session afterward.  It was wonderful to hear his insights on his movies and on cinema in general.  He is sure to be recognized as one of the great filmmakers of his time.

Tim League with Park Chan-wook and his translator during the Q & A.
Tim League with Park Chan-wook and his translator during the Q & A.




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