The Handmaiden (2016)

I still remember the first time I watched Park Chan-wook's Oldboy. It was easily the most brutal, sick, and yet humorous and sweet film I had ever seen, and I absolutely adored it. And yet, while I rewatched Oldboy and his English-language films, Stoker and Snowpiercer, I kept putting off his other Korean films, specifically one I have heard nothing but great things about, The Handmaiden (아가씨 Agassi). And I'm not going to lie, it took me a lot of willpower last Tuesday to sit down and commit to watching a two-hour subtitled movie, but I did it, and I was rewarded with an exquisite experience as the film is a beautiful and suspenseful erotic thriller.

In 1930s Korea during the Japanese occupation, a young Korean woman, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), goes to work as a handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a young Japanese heiress who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her despotic uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) who also happens to be the man Lady Hideko is destined to marry. 

But Sook-Hee has a secret and her motives for working for Lady Hideko are rather nefarious — she is not a handmaiden but a talented pickpocket who is recruited by a charming con-man, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to make Lady Hideko fall in love with him, planning to marry her and have her committed to an asylum to get her fortune. 

The plan seems to go according to plan but Sook-Hee soon develops a fondness for Lady Hideko's, a fondness that seems requited by Lady Hideko and could jeopardise the Count's plan. 

Beautifully structured in three chapters, The Handmaiden tells a rather simple and yet effective and engaging story that sucks you in right from the start and keeps you guessing and on the edge the whole time as it delivers surprising twists and turns along the way. It is a beautiful story about love, compassion, lust, jealousy, betrayal, abuse, greed, and human degeneracy. It is funny, witty, and romantic, as well as dark and twisted as one would expect from Park. 

The characters are compelling and memorable as they are complex and well-developed, and the relationships between them are well-explored. It's the cast, however, that elevates them. Both female leads are terrific — Kim Min-hee delivers Lady Hideko's innocence and naivety to perfection as well as her vengefulness; Kim Tae-ri is an excellent lead and conveys through her eyes and facial expressions the feelings both Sook-hee and we are experiencing. In addition, the two have incredible remarkable chemistry. Ha Hung-woo and Cho Jin-woong are great too, delivering a confident and charming performance the first, and a cold and quite terrifying the latter. 

The Handmaiden is obviously a visual splendour. Every single element is perfect. The gorgeous cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon is filled with memorable shots and beautiful scenery; costumes, make-up and sets are just beautiful. Along with the stunning, atmospheric score by Jo Yeong-wook, they make the film absolutely breathtaking. 

As for the explicit lesbian sex scenes, while it's impossible to ignore the male gaze and the fact women's bodies are once again used for spectacle, they are shot with taste. That said, there is a scene in the film that, in my opinion, stands out more than these — when Sook-hee destroys the books in the library, liberating Lady Hideko from all the pain and humiliation, is easily the most beautiful, touching and memorable scene in the film. 


  1. Definitely one of the best films I had ever seen and certainly one of the erotic as well as I got so invested in the story and the romance. I know Bong Joon-Ho is high on everyone's list but I kind of prefer Chan-wook Park.

    1. I love Bong Joon-ho but I too prefer Park Chan-wook. His films are so brutal and visceral.

  2. This film is absolutely stunning. I was in awe of it. Reading this review makes me want to watch it again!

  3. This is a movie I keep eying but haven't watched yet. I really need to. It sounds fascinating.