Handmaiden: A Film Review

Review: Park Chan-wook’s thrilling mystery ‘Decision to Leave’ is noir at its most nourishing

Park Chan-wook’s 2011 film The Handmaiden, which explored the emotional and physical effects of a love triangle, was a deeply affecting, character-driven thriller in its own right. It told the story of a woman who, by coincidence, has just given birth and, through the tragedy of that event, discovers that she has somehow inherited the DNA of her infant son.

The film was a huge success, but when I was writing my review for the New York Times, I kept coming back to the same line of attack. I insisted that Handmaiden’s protagonist was a very weak character. I could go on, but the best way to see how weak Handmaiden is (and how strong Park Chan-wook in general really is) is to watch the full film on YouTube. In the end, I decided to watch the entire film alone, and then listen to the soundtrack on YouTube. That’s how strong Handmaiden was at its core.

It’s a film that asks difficult questions. How do we feel about people who are forced to abandon us (or worse, we feel about people who force us)? How do we decide who to love and who to abandon? How do we decide to be with a person? What is the difference between a family and a group?

And how do we judge ourselves and our judgments? On the one hand, it has its fair share of lighthearted moments. (When Park and his writing partner, Oh Yeon-hee, play a game of “Who loves Park better, Park or I?”, it’s a game that will make you laugh and laugh.) On the other hand, it asks some of the most challenging, searching questions I’ve ever seen a Hong Kong film ask. Handmaiden may be noir at its most nourishing, but it is very much a noir at its core.

Handmaiden, like noir itself, is a dark film. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t great work in Park’s other films. I can see why Park’s films were popular in Korea, where he spent much of his life, and in the US, where his films are now frequently shown on television. Park may

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