The Film (5/5)
Like many North American films fans I discovered Park Chan-Wook's work through his 2003 breakout Oldboy when it received its initial Tartan Asia Extreme Collection DVD release stateside. I quickly went back and picked up the DVD releases of JSA, and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and waited for the trilogy's conclusion Lady Vengeance (still my favorite Park film). He has continued to make great films like Thirst, I'm A Cyborg (But That's OK), and his American film debut Stoker, but I have felt that known of his films have packed the same punch as JSA and the Vengeance Trilogy until 2016's the Handmaiden.
The Handmaiden is adapted from the novel the Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and tells the story of a woman named Sook-hee, who takes up an offer from her employer Count Fujiwara to become the titular handmaiden for the very rich Lady Hideko, so that the Count can get into Hideko's good graces, and eventually marry Hideko in place of her uncle usurp her fortune, and have her committed. What he does not anticipate is that the two ladies will fall in love, and eventually plot against him.
The film has what could be a simple period set story told in a deeply complex way. The story is split into 3 acts told from each of the 3 main characters perspectives, so that certain segments are repeated from each characters perspective, so they are understood in different ways. Chan-wook has created a lush, gorgeous atmosphere to set his story in, and even in the films slower moments (in the late 2nd act for example) the film is stunning to behold. The performances from the main cast, are always deep from the written to the physical.
This brings me to the sex scenes which like Blue is the Warmest Color have taken on a note of notoriety for their explicit nature. They certainly are explicit for a film that could qualify for a sort of mainstream film, but they do feel central to the plot, as both characters come from positions where they have been dominated by men their entire existence, and are using these moments not just as sexual expression, but as moments where they they are able to take control of their own existence.
OK, so Sony presents the Handmaiden in a decent 2:39:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The transfer is solid for the most part, colors are stable, detail is decent, blacks don't appear to be crushed, but there is softness throughout, and the transfer just feels a little bit flat. Other regions worldwide have received the Handmaiden in a Blu-ray edition (including an official Canadian Blu-ray release), and one has to wonder why Sony in the U.S. chose not to do the same here. A minor segue, but I understand some films still getting DVD releases as they expect the audience just not to be there, a cheap-y action quicky or something. However, a film like the Handmaiden, made by a world-renowned auteur is the type of film whose primary audience is film buffs, many and most of whom have long upgraded to the Blu-ray format for their primary viewing, so why would a film that looks this lush, and this gorgeous get a DVD?
But I digress.
The audio is presented with a 5.1 Dolby Digital track in Korean with optional subtitles. Everything here sounds fine and I have no complaints.
The Handmaiden is a wonderful new film by Korean auteur Park Chan-wook. The DVD is certainly acceptable, but if you're region free you have Blu options, and I'd honestly go with those. If you are not region free, and want a physical copy of this immense and wonderful film on your shelf, pick this up and hopefully Sony corrects course, and puts out a Blu-ray later. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for the film.