It’s pretty hard to not enjoy The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s new thriller. It’s got all of his trademarks – active camera, stylish transitions, some cynical suspense. I liked The Handmaiden. I mean, it’s a hell of a well made film. One of the best parts of it is how Park uses a wide, really handheld camera (I’m thinking of the first time that Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) enters the house in Act I). It’s so at odds with his smooth dolly flourishes and his masterful long takes. It calls attention to itself that way, and I feel like I rarely see a handheld like this: that shakes as it pans in a wide frame. Maybe I’m more used to seeing those that follow and lead, and/or are POV.
The thing with The Handmaiden is that its structure gives its ending away. It’s set up to be a really clever reveal, but if you don’t figure out, by around mid-Act II what’s basically going on then you either haven’t watched many con films, or you haven’t been paying attention to the division of chapters.
Once Park and screenwriter Seo-kyeong Jeong reveal that each chapter/act will switch perspective and replay some action it becomes clear who will get the third chapter. Once that becomes clear it also becomes clear that some new information must be revealed that only this character could be privy to. Once that becomes clear then the basic structure of the con is exposed. It actually leads to an underwhelming Act III. I mean, it’s underwhelming in that it’s predictable while trying to be unpredictable. It’s perfectly satisfying in its overall narrative.
I just wish that the film hadn’t been so structured. I think you get a more suspenseful film just by shuffling the deck a little.
But if suspense isn’t the key for Park – and maybe it’s not – then this film totally succeeds. There is still unpredictability (the “readings” and the octopus); plenty of violence; and a whole lot of elegance.
SMALL SPOILER BELOW
I’m been a fan of all of Denis Villeneuve’s films and Arrival is no exception. It suffers from some rough schmaltz in the last 10 minutes, but if his previous films are to be (more) believed, then this is probably Oscar-bait / big-Hollywood syndrome.
I mean, who doesn’t know how Jeremy Renner fits into everything pretty early-on? Even if you don’t figure out the time structure early (which I didn’t) you can still reason that a) he’s the only “reasonable” male lead to be that part (more of the Hollywood syndrome), and b) there have been such great pains to hide that man’s identity that it therefore must be someone we recognize.
That said, I really liked this film. It’s gentle and compassionate, but also big, eerie, and bold. The first time that Renner’s Ian Donnelly and Louise Banks (Amy Adams) go into the spaceship is kind of like endless possibilities. This film could veer from this point into any genre and be totally believable. I love that form of suspense, which is as mood-based as it is plot-based.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is a little bombastic. Maybe it’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t like in another movie, but on that entrance…it really hits the mark.
There are some small narrative threads that maybe get too little time (the soldier “uprising” for example), but it all pays off with a smart script that for the most part doles out its reveals slowly, and Villeneuve’s confident direction. He moves the camera a lot, but is also quite good at small, claustrophobic scenes (there’s a nice nod to Enemy in here). I feel like many bigger films do one or the other quite well – the big action with no intimate character scenes, or precisely the opposite.
One of the best is, alongside that mentioned bedside nightmare (the Enemy reference), the scene just after Donnelly and Banks’ first entry into the UFO. Their shared wonder, exhaustion, and defense of one-another is such a great comedown after the intensity of the scene just before.