Words on the Internet

these are my stream of consciousness reviews and thoughts. i don't proofread before publishing so forgive the editing or lack thereof 

THE HANDMAIDEN (2016)

Everything a movie should be. Walked in without knowing what to expect, and when the lights came up my friend and I turned to each other grinning. Impressive, fun, and unexpected. 

There’s a lot to love here. Great composition, fun 3 part story structure that’s nonlinear but heightens the story and complexity each time, empowered females, and good dark humor. Oh - and big props for a feminist movie that didn’t feel like that was the goal (some people may argue the sex scenes take away from it, but I read it as normalizing gay sex. Of course, they’re very good looking women and I’m a straight guy so what do I know). 

The camera movements are lavish, dramatic, and frequent. They’re unmotivated, which I often take issue with, but because the plot is twisty and the tone somewhat whimsical, it underscored and added to the universe, if still a bit distracting at times.

The story reminds me of GONE GIRL where the information is perfectly managed and doled out. You’re within a particular characters perspective each time, so you never feel manipulated as the story unravels. If that perspective is not well managed or respected it can come off uninteresting storytelling in the best case and as patronizing in the worst. Not an issue here. It’s the type of movie that you want to rewatch once you've seen it the first time through. There are enough visual easter eggs planted early that I'm sure it will feel super satisfying. 

The composition and production design are world class. The Japanese universe that’s built (with considerable influence from Korea and England - as exposited by the characters early on) is rich, textured, and fun. Even though the Japanese aesthetic of Zen gardens and paper walls has been seen on film many times before, ere it seems especially vibrant, sexy, and mysterious - maybe helped by the camera’s movement and often-times POV perspective. 

The POV perspective gives hints to the plot twist - in that each character’s perspective has a slightly different set of information available - and upon which the entire plot rests. The camera movement and storytelling leans into this, by repeating the same scene with different shots or different parts of a scene. 

The humor and levity of the production keeps the sometimes heavy content (an uncle who makes his niece read dirty stories to his friends) from feeling depressing or like a chore. Highly effective, because as opposed to coming off as a dark drama, the tone is more of a psychological thriller meets a blockbuster heist meets a romantic comedy. What a combo! 

The tone itself perhaps feels the freshest of all - you’re intrigued and uncovering plot points and laughing and invested in each character’s struggle. It’s both cinematic and relatable. There’s also a ton of lesbian sex - which, lacking either narrator’s cliff notes - gives the feeling of honesty and relief for the female protagonists in a world where they’re otherwise manipulating those around them and living under a false identity. Maybe we're most honest ourselves and those around us in throes of passion?

The film’s strongest theme seems to be identity. Each character is dealing with their own identity crisis in different ways - from the uncle (“I just want to read dirty stories”) to the male con artist (“I just want to order wine without worrying about the price”) to the female leads who are both escaping their gender roles and trying to express their love freely. It’s only appropriate that they have to pose as a male-female couple as the final step to escaping the oppressive control of the uncle (and Japan at large?). 

Further underscoring the theme of identity are the conversations around Korea and Japan. I don’t know too much about the relationship between the countries, but the uncle wanting to be Japanese and the mixture of Japanese and Korean language left me wanting to know more. Regardless, the theme of identity was central and pervasive throughout. 

And when you get a theme (identity) that complements a story (three con artists pretending to be people they’re not) that complements a plot (the story told in 3 parts, each from a different point of view and information set) that is complemented by the cinematography (specific framing, movement, POV shots, and perspective) you have a brilliant, tightly wound, swiss clock of a film. Each component of the film thoughtful and intentional. That's how it should be. 

Impressive and delightful. One of my favorites of the year.