Review: The Handmaiden

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: In 1930s pre-war Korea, a scheming Count hires a poor thief to work for the Japanese heiress he plans on running away with.

REVIEW: Park Chan-Wook is probably one of the greatest filmmakers working today, and he doesn’t disappoint with THE HANDMAIDEN, a gorgeous, sensual adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith” that is so stimulating that its 144 minute runtime feels about half that. Meticulously detailing the convoluted relationship between a clever Korean pickpocket, a Japanese heiress and the swindler who seeks to use them both for his own gain, Park’s movie – set in 1930s Korea and Japan – twists, turns, surprises and downright tickles the audience; plenty of credit must of course be given to the source material, but there’s no doubt the South Korean director – often more known for his violent revenge thrillers – is at the top of his game as he brings this period tale to vivid life. But don’t worry, Park fans: there’s still some revenge to be had.

To describe the film is to spoil its surprises; I knew next to nothing about the clever tale going in, save for that it detailed the forbidden love that blossoms between two women in a time when such a thing was not exactly kosher. That scant synopsis doesn’t even come close to what THE HANDMAIDEN (and for that matter, Fingersmith) has in store, for while the love story is the engine that drives this vehicle, there is so much more going on. What can be told is that it all kicks off in Korea under Japanese rule in the 30s, where poor but crafty Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired by a dashing, equally crafty con artist who poses as a Count (Ha Jung-woo) to work as a handmaiden for a lonely Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) and tasked with convincing her to run off with the Count, hence taking her fortune with them both. The gig would seem a slam-dunk for Sook-Hee, who is not only an expert pickpocket but a shrewd manipulator as well, but when the two women forge an unexpected connection, it throws the entire scam into turmoil.

From there, Park’s film is a consistent unraveling of hidden motivations and double crosses (maybe even triple crosses), as our characters do and say things we aren’t prepared for. At a certain point, the film drops a bombshell on us and makes us rethink everything we have just witnessed. And it’s not even done there. With all of these narrative acrobatics going on, it’s a testament to the source material and Park’s rendition of it that we never have trouble following the proceedings. We’re being toyed with, yes, but we’re with the movie as it proudly announces it’s messing with us. There isn’t anything unfair or cheap about how it goes about business; it’s fun as can be. Speaking of fun, much has already been made of the sex scenes in the film, which are graphic but not tawdry. Conversely, they’re joyous in how exploratory and excited its participants are. Sex rarely seems as lovingly exuberant on the big screen.

Kim Tae-ri’s playful performance sets the stage for THE HANDMAIDEN’s quirky atmosphere early on. Both sweet and conniving, Sook-Hee is an instantly lovable character, even as we can’t agree with what she’s doing at first. Not to be outdone are the film’s two other major players, Kim Min-hee is necessarily sympathetic as a character who seems a wilting flower but who has unknowable strength, and Ha Jung-woo is exemplary as a man who can barely hide how untrustworthy he is, but is so charming that it’s hard not to be beguiled by the wares he’s selling. The other significant performance comes from Jin-woong Jo as the man the heiress is expected to live with; this guy is something else, and the character has some of the weirdest, most disturbing stuff going on in the movie.

As can be assumed, the film looks just great. There isn’t a glitch to be found in the production/costume design, and the cinematography (by Park’s longtime collaborator Chung Chung-hoon) is nothing short of Oscar-worthy. To that end, THE HANDMAIDEN simply needs to be front and center during the Academy Awards; you’ll be hard-pressed to find too many other movies this year that hit all the right notes as much as this one does.

The Handmaiden



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About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.