The Handmaiden – a cinematographic symphony

In / Critic by XM studio host

The Handmaiden is a masterpiece. A cinematographic symphony, but where one starts by the Andante to accelerate slowly.

It’s strange. My reviews are always based on the impression I have when I leave the room, this persistent feeling, this subconscious perception of the film. It is it which marks your memory, that one keeps of a movie, years later. With The Handmaiden, this feeling remained diffuse; distant. Yet, at no time (or almost), I can criticize this film. So I conclude that these two hours have been too much for a single reading, and that it will be necessary to see it again. Too much beauty too fast.

Anyway, I have already praised this movie enough, let us try to structure this review. Let’s start with what I have in my ears, as I write these lines: the soundtrack. In a time when too many films are edited with a reference music that will be shamelessly copied, The Handmaiden distinguishes itself by having a music of its own. Too much beauty in too little time: I did not manage to listen to it precisely in the room. But it seemed to me that it was remarkable – a remnant feeling. Also, to write this review, I thought I should listen to it carefully. And even if a central theme doesn’t really stand out from the the rest before the end, the orchestration is no less skillful, not to say magnificent. If there is not a name to attribute the merit to (Jo Yeong-wook?), I have not heard such remarkable orchestration since The Revenant.

The performance of the actors is to my European eye irreproachable, failing to speak Korean or Japanese fluently.

The photography is sublime. Two hours and twenty is long. Too much to remember all shots and frames – too much beauty too fast – and yet from what I remember of it, each shot is worked delicately. Each – or at least most of the – frame(s) is a small picture, some of which are very remarkable. Past the exotic for us westerners, there is a real work with shadows and lights, depths and occasionally the symmetries. To be more specific here, it would take several readings. One is enough to say that it is a very good job.

The story is in the end very good, although on two occasions a slowness in the narration got me out of the story – rare thing. After the first chapter, slower but also more delicate and poetic, the rhythm accelerates and leaves no more respite, and the two hours just fly away.

The only question I leave open is about the erotic scenes. We are far from the vulgarity of Adèle, but it remains very explicit. If one can be shocked, one can also ask to what extent thos scenes serves the story and the aesthetic of the film. I would incline towards something more subtle at times or shorter, but it remains to the appreciation of everyone.

After writing so much I think concluding is almost superfluous. This film is obviously a work (in the sense of the seventh art), not to say a masterpiece and deserves these praises without questions. Especially since, without being quite mainstream, the story is not too exotic to the point of being reserved for a small audience. If curiosity takes you, really, go for it!

Go ! Go find a screening ! Go watch the Trailer ! here’s an IMDb link, and here :

And if you will, go listen this soundtrack !