Movie #39 2020: The Handmaiden (2016)

Once again, I delve into the realm of World Cinema.

I must stress that before Parasite, I was dead-set against subtitles just as so many English-speaking people are. Thankfully, I have disposed of the prejudice surrounding the so-called “one inch barrier” that is the text at the bottom of the screen, and feel more highly enriched for doing so.

To summarise in one sentence: The Handmaiden is a movie that I will forever be grateful that I got to see.

A whirlwind of plot twists and unexpected changes in allegiance, this is an outstanding movie of love, complexity, and strength. Without spoiling too much, it entails a duo of con artists (not unlike Bong Joon Ho‘s triumph of a movie) who plan to marry into the money of a Japanese heiress to do away with her fortune. But, of course, things take a turn in the most unlikely of ways.

On the whole, this is an extremely smart movie. It uses the classic structure of three acts to an expert degree, whilst the cinematography manages to paint a glorious depiction of the Japanese landscape as juxtaposing events occur. There’s something else that makes this movie so wonderful that is hard to pinpoint. It is absolutely and unequivocally storytelling at its best, that’s for sure.

There was, sadly, one facet of this film that forced me to dock it a Q in the ratings system: the male gaze.

WARNING: I have to go into spoiler mode here.

It’s true that the two female characters fall in love. However, the way in which this is portrayed is unfortunately so focused on explicit sex scenes that it takes away from the romantic love story behind it. Not only is the sexual content utterly unrealistic, but there was so much of it. I’m not a prude by any sense of the word; sex scenes can be necessary and intrinsic to a story, especially when that story depicts two people in love. The regrettable thing here is that such scenes were included purely for the male viewer. And it is depressingly obvious.

I have to compare the love story here to that of 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Although I am yet to review Portrait (it’s on it’s way!), I must say that the more recent film’s depiction of lesbian romance is so much more meaningful due to the fact that it seems so real and understated. Contrastingly, The Handmaiden displays the love story in an almost pornographic fashion, which manages to undermine the brilliance of the entire movie as a result. This is yet another instance in which a female director would have undoubtedly improved such sequences.

It is really upsetting for me as I review this that those scenes took so much away from the final product, because so much of this film is almost perfect.

Nevertheless, I really do implore other film lovers to seek this one out. If you put those unnecessary scenes to the back of your mind, this is an epic tale of betrayal, and it is truly worth 145 minutes of your life.

TQR Category Ratings:

Costume & Set Design: 
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