Rightly or wrongly, revenge is a theme that has become almost synonymous with the filmography of South Korean director Park Chan-wook. Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Lady Vengeance and even Stoker are all films that are interested in the recurring motif of justice and retribution, and in that sense The Handmaiden is very much apiece with the rest of Chan-wook's filmography - it too is if not explicitly a film about vengeance, at least includes it as an important part of its story. But The Handmaiden also comes with a subtle shift in worldview that pushes Chan-wook into exploring new and interesting directions, which alongside an added layer of substance results in what may well be his best film to date - and as any film fan worth their salt should know, that's not nothing.
Based loosely on Sarah Waters' novel "Fingersmith", The Handmaiden tells the story of pickpocket Sook-hee as she works as a maid for wealthy heiress Lady Hideko in Japanese-controlled Korea. Sook-hee has only taken the job as part of a plan to scam Hideko out of her fortune by convincing her to marry an accomplice, but as she spends time with Hideko she begins to fall in love, putting the plan in jeopardy in the process.
That's really all the detail that I'm willing to give about the setup for The Handmaiden, mainly because I'd hate to be the guy who spoiled even one of the many surprises that it has in store for audiences who go in as blind as I did. Even more so than the incredible sense of craft that it's imbued with (more on that later), The Handmaiden's real strength lies in the story it's telling and themes and ideas that it explores in the process - namely, female sexuality and reclaiming that in the face of an overbearing patriarchy. It's a focal point that drives The Handmaiden throughout, and while potentially exploitative at times (I'd find it hard to argue that The Handmaiden doesn't succumb to male gaze at least a little thanks to the amount and length of its graphic sex sequences), Chan-wook's deft hand ensures that we're never leering thanks to how deliberate, how full of purpose these scenes are.
The relationship that forms between Sook-hee and Hideko is a complicated one, and not just because of what the plot demands as it progresses. The Handmaiden is a film that lives or dies on the performances of its two leads and the chemistry they share, but Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee are so perfect in their roles that the film is never in danger of faltering - there is both a tenderness and an electricity to all of their interactions that draws you in with ease, and seeing them grow closer (and the way the plot interferes with that) is a hugely engaging experience, one only heightened by Hideko's need to reclaim the very things that were used against her for so long. The fact that this is all presented to us with a sense of confidence and capability that lesser directors could only dream of is really just the icing on the cake - there are few films that feel as complete and cohesive on a textual level as this.
And yes, The Handmaiden is every bit as well-made as you've come to expect from a Park Chan-wook film. Chung Chung-hoon's cinematography is nothing short of gorgeous throughout, and despite being nearly three hours long, The Handmaiden flies by quicker than films half as long thanks to just how well paced and structured it is - there isn't a second of wasted screen-time here, every frame being used to push the story forward or further endear us to the characters that the story revolves around. On top of that, there is a thick vein of rich humour running through the twisted, oppressive atmosphere of The Handmaiden that never undermines the films serious themes or mature approach to them - those that somehow legitimately believe that serious films shouldn't also be funny simply don't have a leg to stand on.
If I'm being a little light on details - and I am - it's because I'd simply hate to accidentally ruin any of what makes The Handmaiden such an impressive movie. It isn't going to be a film for everyone - the graphic sex scenes alone are more than enough to put your average film-goer off - but it's also not a film that is intended to be for everyone, and in being willing to alienate (another consistent aspect of the director's filmography) Chan-wook has created something that can only truly be described as a stunning, singular work of art. The Handmaiden isn't just a great film, it's one that any real lover of cinema owes it to themselves to see, and I can't recommend it enough.