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Critics reviews
The Handmaiden
Park Chan-wook South Korea, 2016
On its surface, The Handmaiden is an intoxicating study of duality and code-switching, a theatre played with the ropes that rig society to elevate the few and subjugate the many. It’s a meditation on power and desire, porn and performance. But more than this: its a brilliantly dark ode to women’s desire and autonomy: a subject that remains as pressing today as it was a century ago.
May 19, 2017
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It’s almost like there’s a fuzzy line being drawn between bad erotica (here, written works and readings for the benefit of men) and good erotica (here, sex between two women, as presented to us by a male filmmaker). This might have made more sense in Sarah Walters’ original novel Fingersmith, where the two kinds of erotica would both be literary, and the women’s stuff would actually be written by a woman. But we enjoyed it — my God, the design is fantastic.
May 17, 2017
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Park visibly rules his cinematic kingdom with imperial autonomy, cooking up a hyper-elaborate plot and mounting it on spectacular sets, designed by Ryu Seong-hee, of extraordinary beauty and intricacy. The sprawling, oppressive dwelling of wicked uncle Kouzuki is a Wellesian Xanadu, and creating it on screen in all its palatial complexity is in itself a statement of triumphantly unrestrained auteurial power.
April 13, 2017
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The film could fairly be described as self-indulgent, but every new outrageous act, every shot that pans over silks or furniture or naked bodies, feels like a wry wink… In The Handmaiden, sex itself is a con, luring us into the narrative and then complicating it more than we might expect.
April 11, 2017
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This really should rank as my number one, I was so taken with this movie’s ambition, going beyond a thriller (this is Park Chan-wook — he’s going to go above and beyond — I’m pretty certain he’s a genius at this point), but the gothic power, eroticism, violence, delicious perversity and romanticism of this picture might make this his greatest work. And that’s saying a lot.
December 31, 2016
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A fetishistic delight, this feminist melodrama from Park Chan-wook is filled with pleasurable plot twists and lots of hearty laughs, often at the expense of dim and outfoxed men. Are the vagina POV shots a film first?
December 17, 2016
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Park is in a difficult position with this material, in that he needs to create authentic eroticism with the sex scenes and yet avoid accusations of exploitation, a position in which at least some critics would inevitably judge him harshly. The most obvious recent comparison is La Vie d’Adèle, which was similarly criticised7 but which I likewise feel was able to bring a genuine erotic charge to the material that is integral to the film’s overall success as drama.
December 14, 2016
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This year we’ve been presented with one of the best pieces of queer cinema – and indeed one of the best pieces of cinema this side of Brokeback Mountain. Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is not only an exquisite piece of storytelling, it’s also a miraculous revelation: the blinding of the male gaze while depicting a uniquely female experience is apparently entirely achievable, and perhaps even more surprising, obscenely sexy.
December 06, 2016
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Much like Park Chan-wook’s earlier films Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005), and Thirst (2009), The Handmaiden exploits the presumption of innocence in others, cannily redistributing knowledge and guilt throughout the film’s cascade of kinks and crimes. This cognitive switch from presumed innocence to knowing complicity is paradigmatic for Park, and he stages it ever more deftly with each film he makes.
December 02, 2016
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Park gives the story an elegant makeover. It remains a Dickensian crime drama involving a long con, a lesbian awakening, and a series of whomping double-crosses, but the action is cleaner, with no Cockney blowsiness to cloud it. A cold, tranquil, lush estate serves as the backdrop. In fits like electric brownouts that make the mansion flicker, it becomes clear that the meticulous rooms conceal dark pathologies. The ordered allure of “The Handmaiden” is something of a sleight of hand.
October 29, 2016
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Park co-opts sensual soft-core lore of old to enact revenge on power hungry men (the audience included) who would get off feeling dominant over the fairer sex. The Handmaiden ultimately provides a safe space for women to reclaim imagery associated with kinky male fantasies and turn them into something intimate, all on their own terms. Park’s film may be silly and slight, but it often strikes the right nerve.
October 25, 2016
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Whatever you make of Park’s newfound allegiance to feminism, The Handmaiden is unassailably a film aligned with female desire. As for the improbability of the film’s much-remarked-upon depiction of graphic lesbian sex acts as directed by a male filmmaker, I’d say that’s entirely the point. Aside from fitting comfortably within Park’s usual over-the-top tone, The Handmaiden explicitly broaches the subject of erotic fiction, simultaneously skewering and delighting in overwrought purple prose.
October 21, 2016
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At times its very existence feels inexplicable. And yet all of its disparate pieces are assembled with such care, and the characters written and acted with such psychological acuity, that you rarely feel as if the writer-director is rubbing the audience’s nose in excess of one kind or another. This is a film made by an artist at the peak of his powers.
October 21, 2016
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No one is quite who they seem in this deliciously lavish period piece. Like most of Park’s films, the fine art of erotic manipulation is gleefully on display in The Handmaiden—as are the usual host of patriarchal perversities and fetishes—but the film has an affecting emotional core that signals a welcome new direction in Park’s work: one that eschews the shock value he’s become famous for with films like Oldboy and Lady Vengeance in favor of a slightly more delicate approach to character.
October 20, 2016
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Without sacrificing his taste for psychosexual perversity or his flair for violent grace notes, Park has given us a teasingly witty and elegant puzzle-box of a thriller whose pleasures are rooted not in visceral shock but in narrative surprise, and which wisely opts to seduce rather than pulverize its audience. The result is the director’s most absorbing feature in years
October 20, 2016
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Mr. Park may not seem to be doing all that much with the big ideas simmering here, including how the relentless pursuit of aesthetic perfection — especially when it comes to inherently imperfect human beings — can serve as a means of terror. But the ideas are here, tucked into a different kind of erotic story, one that alternately jolts and delights as Sookee and Hideko laugh their way to a new ending.
October 20, 2016
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It’s a unique, complex new entry in gothic storytelling that recalls the dense subtext and filmic innovations of its predecessors like Gaslight, a film that seventy years later still confounds viewers with insights and fuel for modern-day vernacular on psychological abuse.
October 19, 2016
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It’s one for the books, flaws and all. And while Park’s distance from his subjects is one of these flaws, his position as a filmmaker operating beyond and actively against popular conventions enables him to work without an obligation to anyone but Sook-hee and Hideko, to whom the story truly belongs.
October 19, 2016
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The film represents a profound leap for the South Korean director in terms of artistic patience. Rather than turning the figurative dial up to 11 out of the gate, unleashing a string of barely unified and self-consciously outré shock effects, Park establishes a seductive mood that blooms intimately and poignantly out of his characters’ hungers.
October 12, 2016
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It goes without saying that Park makes the text his own, though the accumulating perspectival shifts, voyeuristic gazes through peepholes, and academic eroticism puts him even more firmly in Hitchcock via De Palma territory than usual. Like his English-language debut Stoker (2013), though, the narrative and characters can feel like a clothesline on which to hang dubious aesthetic flourishes.
September 07, 2016
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Aside from these outrageous and ironic convolutions of plot—which hinge on theatrical readings of shunga-illustrated erotica—Park portrays the complete spectrum of sex, exploring its liberating, abusive, and basally functional aspects. The love scenes between Sook-hee and Hideko are beautiful, explicit, and funny, displaying a candor about sexuality that’s not intended to shock but to draw you in—it’s the most normal thing about this flamboyant, acerbic film.
September 03, 2016
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The ensuing labyrinthine plot is sprinkled with moments of gruesome brutality and frenetic lesbian sex scenes of an intensity that was last seen at Cannes in Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour, 2013). As undeniably gratifying as these sprinklings of sex and violence are, the end result, as with Park’s The Stoker (2013), is to leave one with a pungent aftertaste of nihilism.
July 10, 2016
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A sumptuous, erotic tale about a Korean handmaid who falls in love with her mistress, a Japanese heiress.
May 20, 2016
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The film is a series of sleights of hand about sleights of hand: Park brings the full arsenal of cinematic expression – interlocking sets, crane shots, dollies, and dizzying pans, not to mention a savvy interplay of eerie reserve and hyperventilating emotionality with his performances — to invest us in each moment, even though much of the time we know the characters are being conned, that it’s all an illusion.
May 16, 2016
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Park’s a smarter director than his unsavory tactics might suggest, and while “The Handmaiden” isn’t his most cohesive work, it’s driven by a pointed ideological perspective. Rather than merely sensationalizing corruption, he uses it to give credence to his characters’ wavering moral compasses. No matter its overarching ridiculousness, “The Handmaiden” remains a hugely enjoyable dose of grotesque escapism from a master of the form.
May 15, 2016
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Boasting more tangled plots and bodies than an octopus has tentacles, South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” is a bodice-ripper about a pickpocket who poses as a maid to swindle a sequestered heiress. His first Korean-language fiction feature since 2009’s “Thirst,” it’s sybaritic, cruel and luridly mesmerizing.
May 14, 2016
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Park’s films are in danger of turning into wallpaper themselves – they are wholly ornamental accessories which please the eye while leaving the heart and the mind untroubled. Yes, The Handmaiden offers an intricate motif with delicate shading and much fine detail. But underneath that wisp-thin veneer, it’s just a big, blank wall.
May 14, 2016
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It gets progressively trashier and more overheated as it goes along, serving up multiple plot twists and replaying earlier scenes from a radically different perspective. Divided into three parts, it kicks into gear with part two, at roughly the halfway point; it also should have ended there, as part three (by far the shortest, thankfully) extends the narrative to no clear purpose apart from allowing Park to toss in some gratuitous, Oldboy-style violence.
May 14, 2016
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The eminent carnage-enthusiast is remarkably restrained this time around, limiting himself to a single torture scene that involves a character going to town on another’s hand with a paper cutter and a drill, with most of the chopping and perforating taking place off-screen. Yet, his idea of emancipation is no less juvenile. It more or less boils down to having Sookee and Lady Hikeko engage in three sex scenes… that conform stereotypical adolescent male fantasies of how lesbians get it on.
May 14, 2016
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Kozuki’s desperate attempts to wring orgiastic pleasure from the pain that’s inflicted on others could be read as the filmmaker’s sly self-critique of his own indulgences in hollow exploitation. This makes sense in a film that generally trades physical for emotional violence… This acknowledgment also makes The Handmaiden modestly feminist, even if its elegant, NC-17 sex never quite fully escapes the feeling of the very exploitation of which it’s supposed to represent a rejection of.
May 14, 2016
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