Every story, be it either fable or foible, has three versions. There is your story, my story, and the truth. Seductive, alluring, and meticulous, THE HANDMAIDEN is a three-part period piece set in 1930s Korea/Japan that presents its story in three such parts; fragments that by way of individual perspective collectively form a whole. Its three central characters - a high-status Count (Jung-woo Ha), a wealthy Lady (Min-hee Kim), and the handmaiden of the title (Tae-ri Kim) - offer unique perspectives on a story that involves love, money, and betrayal in equal measure.
Each version is a long con, a great grift, meant to sucker one of the three characters and leave the remaining with fabulous wealth, true and romantic love, or some combination of the two. Thematically speaking, the film employs something similar to - if not an exact replica of - The Rashomon Effect. Derived from Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film RASHOMON, the effect is realized by separate, often contradictory, perspectives on a particular set of events. While RASHOMON concerns murder and THE HANDMAIDEN betrayal, the three-part structure is as much a clandestine means to con the audience with a surprise twist as it is an elegant way to construct a gradual reveal.
By the film's end, the audience has spent considerable time with each of three main characters, knows their true motives as well as their masks, and love - which in this film initially seems like a devious deception - wins in the war against greed. Love conquers all, as they say. The same story may be told thrice over, with more revealed of its depth of perversity in each iteration as the dust is cleared from its metaphoric shelves, but the experience is slyly satisfying. The overwhelming sense left in its romantic wake is 1) that pain is a garment that we wear in hopes of finding someone who accepts us without - or in spite of - it; 2) love is the greatest illusion, and 3) that masculine logic is doomed logic. While there is nothing exactly new in THE HANDMAIDEN, it is a masterfully twisty costume drama sure to garner much attention, considerable awards, and neither without good reason.
- Samuel B. Prime
Founder, LA Ciné Salon