Way back in late September, I was in line at the Hollywood Arclight on Sunset, hoping to get a seat for an advanced screening of The Birth of a Nation, which wasn’t due out in theaters for more than a week. Particularly in Los Angeles, signing up for the right email distribution list will alert you to free advanced screenings year-round, but because they overbook to ensure a full house, the screening pass in my pocket didn’t guarantee me entry. I’ve been turned away from movies like The Hateful 8, Kubo and the Two Strings, Steve Jobs, Arrival, and plenty of others. This wasn’t an unusual situation I found myself in, standing in line, checking my watch, gauging how many people were left in front of me and making guesses as to how many seats were left in the theater.
What made it unusual was a young woman walking up and down and the line of people handing out (or at least attempting to hand out) free tickets to a different movie, something called The Handmaiden. It was close enough to the start time and we were far back enough in line that most of us knew we weren’t getting into Birth of a Nation, but even so, few took her up on the offer for an alternative. I would have, but by the time they told us the screening was officially full, The Handmaiden had already started. In hindsight, I should’ve jumped ship on the line and just taken the Handmaiden ticket from the promotions woman — I knew I wasn’t getting into Birth of a Nation — but I guess the possibility of getting in, however bleak, was enough to keep me and most everyone else in line and away from The Handmaiden. Once I was officially turned away, I saw Hell or High Water instead.
And this is why we need time machines.
The dozens of people in that line, myself included, chose to delusionally wait in the hopes of seeing (what turned out to be) a mediocre disappointment instead of taking a chance on (what turned out to be) one of the best movies of the year.
In Japan-occupied Korea, a conman going by the name Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) enlists the help of a low-level pickpocket, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), to help him weasel a sizable inheritance away from a mysterious Japanese heiress, Lady Heiko (Min-hee Kim). His plan is to send Sook-Hee in as a handmaiden to the secluded heiress and use her access and influence to convince Lady Heiko to marry him, at which time he intends to have Heiko committed at an asylum so he can take her wealth. However, in the course of convincing Heiko of Fujiwara’s charm, Sook-Hee finds herself falling for Heiko, complicating their gas lighting scheme.
While the “forbidden love” aspect that made Brokeback Mountain (or, ya know, Romeo & Juliet) so great is certainly present here, there’s a lot more going on. You might think you have a grasp of where the story is headed, but the movie takes a hard right turn about an hour in, then it takes a hard left turn before the final credits roll. This is no Carol, and I can promise that it’s not remotely what you’re expecting.
The twists and turns of the story keep you guessing on a superficial plot-level, but the hidden character motivations also challenge cultural expectations regarding the assumed innocence and submissiveness of women (Asian women in particular). There’s an exceptionally graphic lesbian sex scene, but it’s far from exploitative; the entire point is to challenge the straight-male fetishization of lesbian sex (both in the movie and in real life). And this is all to say nothing of the beautiful cinematography, one of my favorites scores of the year, and the gorgeous production design and costumes (but, crucially, the costumes aren’t the whole point of the movie, like in so much of Keira Knightley’s filmography).
I’m sure The Handmaiden will pass by mostly unnoticed, but for what it’s worth, it’s directed by Chan-wook Park, who also made Oldboy (one of few Korean movies that’s managed to find an American audience). Don’t be like me and the rest of the people in line in front of the Arclight. If someone hands you a free ticket to The Handmaiden, take it.