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Review: The Handmaiden

In the process of searching for My Life as a Zucchini, I discovered an arthouse theater called Sunshine Cinema, and while it doesn’t start showing the animated film until February 24th, it was screening The Handmaiden, a South Korean production that caught my eye during its festival run a while back. An interesting foreign movie playing at a venue I’d never heard of? You know I bought a ticket!

The Handmaiden is the latest effort from director Park Chan-wook, best known in the West for his sick, twisted, and absolutely beautiful adaptation of the manga Oldboy, and like the vast majority of his work, it’s almost impossible to classify. It’s a dark comedy, a multi-layered caper, a love story—some might even call it softcore pornography, though I wouldn’t go that far—rolled into one magnificently-photographed, immaculately-paced package.

Unfortunately, beyond even its fine puree of genres, The Handmaiden’s narrative structure makes it difficult to discuss in specific terms. Remember Oldboy’s infamous twist ending? Well, here, nearly every scene contains some shocking revelation or another, and each scrap of new information completely changes the context of the events preceding it.

Despite The Handmaiden’s infuriating refusal to allow me to describe it, I will reveal this much: it is extremely funny, constantly surprising, packed with wonderfully bizarre imagery (from an old man reclining in a chair borne on the back of a house servant to a monstrous octopus writhing around in its tiny aquarium)—and, yes, even kind of sexy—and I won’t soon forget it.

[Originally written February 19, 2017.]

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