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Evan C

The Handmaiden

18 posts in this topic

Has anyone seen this yet? I thought we had a few Park Chan-Wook fans around here.

Anyway, it's one of his most effortlessly filmed movies. He clearly enjoys setting up and spinning all the elaborate wheels as he explores some of the darkest elements of humanity he's explored yet. As a warning, if you've struggled with the content in his other films, you should probably stay far away from this.

I threw up some quick first thoughts on Letterboxd.

Quote

You think you know how it's going to end, and you're right. What you don't know is the 10+ twists it will getting to that ending, as the despicable actions of all the characters become more devious, more convoluted, more shocking, and more sinister. My only small complaint is during Part II, when Chan-wook is revealing all the pieces to the puzzle, he didn't need to repeat quite as many scenes as he did, but that was just two or three brief moments. As a story which spins its devious web around elaborate manipulations, pornography, objectification of women, sadism, and bizarre tortures, Chan-wook lets all hell break loose as he explores the darker aspects of humanity. I'm not going to argue this is anything other than trash, but it's meticulously crafted, breathtakingly filmed trash.

 

Edited by Evan C

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If you've seen one of the Park films that established his reputation, you know what you're signing up for.

The Handmaiden is, indeed, Park operating at the peak of his directorial powers, effortlessly blending tones and flourishes into something incredibly alive and intoxicating.

Colin Stacy's insightful review says everything I'd want to say about it and then some.

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After thinking over this film for the past month, and after reading Colin's phenomenal review, I am ready to rescind that last sentence from my Letterboxd review. The Handmaiden has quite a bit of insight regarding pornography and male objectification of women. Honestly, I'm considering the possibility that this is Park's best film.

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Colin's review is excellent. I would be okay with calling this his best film in the sense that it is his clearest, most sumptuous, precise, and delicately rendered version of Park. The interiors here are so exquisite and sustained, even compared to Stoker and Thirst. His odd sense of history is also present, in that while the story is staged in the past, everything Park does feels like science fiction. I am not sure how to describe that, frankly. But all of his films exist in a Park universe containing elements of the past and future at the same time, charging their sense of the present with the timeless and prophetic. When PKD writes period pieces, you get the same vibe (e.g. UBIK).

I would be curious, Evan, what you think about Thirst given that it has a few of the same sexual elements appearing in a Catholic symbolic world. I recall many responding to that film the same way you initially responded to this one.

Edited by M. Leary

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11 hours ago, M. Leary said:

I would be curious, Evan, what you think about Thirst given that it has a few of the same sexual elements appearing in a Catholic symbolic world. I recall many responding to that film the same way you initially responded to this one.

I think as soon as I finish the Ecumenical Jury nominees and other top ten year end contenders, I'll move Thirst to the top of my to-watch list.

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11 hours ago, M. Leary said:

Colin's review is excellent. I would be okay with calling this his best film in the sense that it is his clearest, most sumptuous, precise, and delicately rendered version of Park. The interiors here are so exquisite and sustained, even compared to Stoker and Thirst. His odd sense of history is also present, in that while the story is staged in the past, everything Park does feels like science fiction. I am not sure how to describe that, frankly. But all of his films exist in a Park universe containing elements of the past and future at the same time, charging their sense of the present seem timeless and prophetic. When PKD writes period pieces, you get the same vibe (e.g. UBIK).

Yes to all of that. 

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14 minutes ago, Evan C said:

I think as soon as I finish the Ecumenical Jury nominees and other top ten year end contenders, I'll move Thirst to the top of my to-watch list.

Oh, Park's Thirst has really stuck with me. I look forward to your thoughts.

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Here is the thread on Thirst. I thought I had contributed to it, but apparently not. Ryan linked there the interview with Park that sent me down a rabbit hole into Catholic imagery in Korean horror cinema (which is oddly notable in this genre - e.g. The Wailing, I Saw the Devil, ThirstPieta, Blood Pledge). 

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I guess this good old Tennessee boy just isn't sophisticated enough to appreciate the "meta-critique of the male gaze" in watching a couple of skinny nubile ladies scissoring.  It looked an awful lot like soft core pornography with a thin ice crust of rationalization scattered on the top.  I guess I just need to steer clear of films by Chan-wook Park for a while, since I pretty much hated Snowpiercer and Oldboy, but I was lured in by all of the praise his newest film has received (including Best Foreign Language Film from the critics' association I belong to).  

This is somewhat analogous to my recent reaction to Elle, which struck me as superficially feminist while turning out to be rather misogynistic, to the point of including a "she really wanted it" rape narrative.

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I think that a very fair response to any of Park's films, Andrew. I have never thought he was the sort of director who has things figured out enough to make films about abstractions like "the male gaze." He makes films about the messiness of human passions, as being intertwined with carnal, religious, historical, etc... impulses.

But he has a brilliant insight into the raw language of cinema - and he has used that insight to depict human passions in a unique way.

To push his films much harder than that reads too much into what he does. I know it always sounds like a cop out to say someone's cinema is resistant to traditional film critical language, but Park's films really are. And as such, you kind of dig them or you don't. I think it telling that fans of the macabre and grand guignol are attracted to his films more than others, even though they aren't straight horror.

Edited by M. Leary

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5 hours ago, Andrew said:

 I guess I just need to steer clear of films by Chan-wook Park for a while, since I pretty much hated Snowpiercer and Oldboy, but I was lured in by all of the praise his newest film has received (including Best Foreign Language Film from the critics' association I belong to).  

FYI, SNOWPIERCER was Bong Joon-ho. But point taken.

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Well, Park was a producer on Snowpiercer, so he might have had a little artistic input there.

Anyway, I second everything M. said. Park is the sort of director you either really dig or you hate, and I don't have any argument with anyone who hates him.

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Oops!  I scanned Park's film list at Rotten Tomatoes and missed the director/producer distinction.  I should've checked at imdb instead.

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"Cold and blue and strangely beautiful."

This is my...second Park movie, after Thirst. And somehow I didn't notice or forgot how wicked his sense of humor is. Like, not just rapidly-alternating darkness and light; the darkness is shot through with a very perverse laughter, and I laughed in a way similar to the way I responded to Gone Girl. This is a much better movie than Gone Girl, mind, but it's got a similar sort of wink to it. And part of that wink, in both cases, is related to the sheer joy of telling a story that actually is willing to go there--and I don't mean the sex scenes.

The construction here is really lovely, too--the way story elements play off of each other or crop up in unexpected ways. 

I've got to think on it some more, but there's a definite thumbs-up from me.

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There's something to be said i/r/t this movie about the erotics of plot, but I'm not quite sure what, yet. But I think the plotting here *is* erotic in a way that the plot in, say, a Nolan film isn't. 

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Posted (edited)

13 hours ago, NBooth said:

There's something to be said i/r/t this movie about the erotics of plot, but I'm not quite sure what, yet. But I think the plotting here *is* erotic in a way that the plot in, say, a Nolan film isn't. 

Colin's [excellent] review, linked above, covers some of this:

Quote

As Tamako and Hideko grow closer together, a romance blooms. Their intimacy is the film’s saving grace, even when it too seems to give Park permission to stage sexual encounters that at first blush play as highbrow trash. But if knowledge is the film’s highest form of currency (diegetically and not) then sex is invaluable. When the women engage in sexual acts (originally staged as Tamako teaching Hideko how to engage with her future husband), physical intimacy becomes a theater of revelation. Bodies are intertwined like multiple narratives attempting to coalesce into a single whole. Sex is about subservience, and Park, by layering his erotica with meaning, locates within his erogenous vision a benevolent, loving heart.

(I'm adopting the term "highbrow trash" into my critical lexicon, btw)

This comparison of entwined bodies and entwined plots gets at something like what I mentioned above. There's also this--the erotic must be separated from the sexual; the former deals in suggestiveness while the latter deals in mechanics. The way the plot unfolds in The Handmaiden relies on suggestion and deferral--plot points are introduced and then come back with the minimum of emphasis, so that the realization of their importance evokes a sudden, unexpected, and intense pleasure.

The obvious point of contrast here is the pornographic library owned by the uncle; there is nothing erotic about it, there is even a revolt against eroticism. Witness: soon after the nature of the library is revealed, the uncle auctions off a book whose sole "flaw" is a missing woodcut. In order to sell the book, he is obliged to stage the missing piece--to make explicit what has become unreadable. Or, more properly, to make the mechanics explicit (it's staged with a mechanical dummy, for that matter!). 

The way Park handles the sex is different in its emphasis on what isn't said--both in that there exists a gap between each person's knowledge of the other and because that precise gap constitutes the soul of the erotic. There's an excess of desire that goes beyond the mechanics we see on screen, just as there's an excess of significance that goes beyond the plot-points contained in the narrative. That excess is seen both in that we go over the same plot twice, from different viewpoints, and in that the same sex scene is played out twice, from almost entirely new angles and with different subjectivities. Neither telling/showing can contain this excess, and so the movie duplicates itself. Contrast, again, to the uncle's pornographic library, where duplication is unnecessary because all that needs to be said is said.

 

Edited by NBooth

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On 1/24/2017 at 10:48 AM, M. Leary said:

He makes films about the messiness of human passions, as being intertwined with carnal, religious, historical, etc... impulses.

But he has a brilliant insight into the raw language of cinema - and he has used that insight to depict human passions in a unique way.

This is very much how I think of Park: a filmmaker of the passions.

NBooth's thoughts on the film's structure are really quite excellent.

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On 12/5/2016 at 11:31 AM, M. Leary said:

I would be curious, Evan, what you think about Thirst given that it has a few of the same sexual elements appearing in a Catholic symbolic world. I recall many responding to that film the same way you initially responded to this one.

I did not forget; the first DVD I got from the library a couple months ago was badly scratched, so I gave up on watching that, and then I got sidetracked with other things.

Anyway, I thought Thirst was brilliant, even if I very slightly prefer The Handmaiden for its use of flashback, changing pov, and more elaborate production design. As a tragedy, horror film, and twisted love story, Thirst seemed fairly straightforward in how unchecked passions consume us. From the beginning, before the priest goes to the clinic, he lectures a women in confession about the gravity of suicide, and then seeks a sort of martyrdom for himself by participating in an experiment condemned by the Vatican, rationalizing his disobedience and reckless endangering of his life through his desire to help others. Aristotle defined virtue as being in the middle of two extremes, or between a deficiency and excess of a trait; Thirst seemed to be watching two characters fling themselves from one end to the other without ever thinking about that middle, with Fr. Hyun more often representing excess and Tae-ju representing deficiency, which is why they deserve one another. When they attempt to whitewash the magnitude of their crimes, they're building a literal tomb for themselves, and I really liked Park's way of depicting that. The final twist, like The Handmaiden, is rather predictable, but the journey to get there is exquisite.

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