Not much is missing from near-flawless ‘The Handmaiden’

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The Handmaiden (2016)

Directed by Park Chan-Wook

Since the first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film was awarded in 1947, South Korea has submitted 28 different films for consideration. Not a single one has even been nominated. The country submitted a movie this year, too…but it wasn’t director Park Chan-wook’s controversial new erotic thriller, “The Handmaiden.” Instead, they opted for a period war drama. But while “The Handmaiden” was still eligible for every other category, it got none. That’s a shame.

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The daughter of a notorious pickpocket, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) was bound to live up to her mother’s nasty reputation. When she’s hired by a slimy nobleman (Ha Jung-woo) to act as a handmaiden and trick a wealthy heiress (Kim Min-hee) into marrying him, Sook-Hee is up for the task. Little does she know, there’s more to this dastardly plot. With the heiress’s domineering uncle (Jo Jin-Woong) in the home, tricking the heiress won’t be as easy as she hoped. And when she finds a deeper connection with the heiress than she ever anticipated, Sook-Hee questions whether or not she even wants the plan to succeed.

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Park (“Oldboy”) knows how to tell a story in full. With 140 minutes, he tells “The Handmaiden” as exhaustively as any film this year. Some foreign films get lost in translation, but with “The Handmaiden,” even the English reads like literary prose. Adapting Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith,” which was set in Victorian England, Park and the other writers only tell us what we need to know when we need to know it. “The Handmaiden,” much like “Gone Girl” and others before, is broken up into chapters that give you background on the previous parts until, at the end, you’re completely clued in…and flabbergasted at seeing how all the pieces of this extraordinarily complex puzzle fit together. Part One alone makes for a brilliant 60-minute mystery. As Parts Two and Three come around, you’re shocked to know that what was right in front of you in Part One was actually not at all what you thought it was. It’s brilliant. Part Two features much more of the uncle, unfortunately. His creepy character doesn’t do much for the story, except give you a full-body case of the goosebumps. Much better are the film’s two heroines. Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee are the stars of the show, and they’re down for anything (I’m not kiddin’). Their lengthy lovemaking scene is one of the film’s bigger talking points. But cultural differences aside, “The Handmaiden” brings up an interesting double-standard—it’s emboldened to show all sides of the intimate encounter with two girls, while director Barry Jenkins’ dramatic “Moonlight” earlier this year felt the need to hide its lone male same-sex encounter (well, that, plus the MPAA also has problems showing the male anatomy like the female anatomy). Is “The Handmaiden” a story of female liberation or exploitation? It’s a fine line. You’ll have to judge for yourself. One thing “The Handmaiden” isn’t is afraid of is what you’ll think of it. Rest assured that Park is willing to give you everything you might need to fully understand the tale he wants to tell.

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“The Handmaiden” is a titillating romantic thriller like only could be made in South Korea. Park Chan-wook has a penchant for messing with your mind. But this time, he crafted not only a truly disturbing picture, but one that’s technical brilliance is matched by its script and cast. In the growing field of erotic thrillers, “The Handmaiden” handily spanks the competition. Foreign or otherwise, it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in a while.

8.5/10

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