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Min-hee Kim's Secrets and Lies in "The Handmaiden"

by Chris Feil

Much of the praise for Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden has favored the director's twisted vision, the sumptuous design elements, or its grinning audacity. Sure the film is as immaculately crafted as all that talk has promised, but there one thrilling puzzle inside the film worthy of equal regard is the lead performance by Min-hee Kim.

For a film as plotty and opulent as The Handmaiden, you can understand how any performance might not be the first takeaway. But believability of the narrative's many twists falls largely on Kim's coolly dexterous shoulders...

How to even discuss her performance without diving headfirst into spoiler territory considering how linked her actorly demands are to the triptych of shifting perspectives? And how to describe a performance built on such intriguing intangibles?

The feat is that Kim is charged with playing truth, lie, and fantasy simultaneously without deceiving any of the three. As Tae-ri Kim's Sook-hee becomes obsessed with her, Kim plays Lady Hideko as both aloof and forthright to disarming effect for both Sook-hee and the audience. She's enigmatic but still layered enough to deceive us into thinking we just might know this fragile woman. You can simply get lost in her face, whether it's interpreting every minute flinch for signs of what's really going on or good old-fashioned goddess worship awe.

But her real Lady Hideko does not remain unrevealed. If the performance (and film) is a play on dualities, she has to distinguish between her masks of deception and the believable truth otherwise the film falls apart. It's not just her voice and physicality that is modulated - the actress is intelligently measured, never overplaying to any one side to spoil the fun. Add in unexpected doses of self-loathing, materialism, and compassion and you have one slippery performance.

The key to Kim's performance is when things get kinky. If sex is a fascination of the film, its a tool for Kim to wordlessly reveal layers of Lady Hideko. The humiliation she endures at the demands of her uncle builds up her fraught exoskeleton, only to ever be melted away once consummating with Sook-hee. It's no mistake that she finally comes alive in their extended love scene and we believe what we see on her face without question. In providing a purity of feeling, Kim reveals a woman who is finally fighting her way out of a cage rather than simply a woman falling in love.

It may take the length of the film to see how inspired her performance is, but it is fascinatingly full of body and mind. The Handmaiden is turning its own screws, but she's the screwdriver.

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Reader Comments (6)

Agreed, she's amazing.

November 16, 2016 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

Her role sneaks up on you. The first chapter I was a big fan of Tae-ri Kim's performance above the others, but the transition in part two, especially with her storytelling, was enthralling. I don't think a performance has ever taken me aback quite like hers. Really want to see it again!

November 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterChris K

Couldn't agree with you more. Such an elegant performance, spiced with a dash of earthiness.

November 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

Incredible performance. This might be my favorite film of the year thus far. So queer, so feminist, so gorgeous! And twisted, too. The actors are all fantastic, but the two women steal the show (and rightly so).

November 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Vlad

YES. The more I think about The Handmaiden (and I think about it A LOT), the more her performance stands out as a particularly brilliant feat. Granted, the structure of the film helps, but it really is an exquisitely judged performance all around, completely beguiling from the very first. She may even make my Best Actress list by the end of the year.

November 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDancin' Dan

Agreed about the brilliance of the film -- acting, colors, cinematography, mood, pacing, sense of macabre intertwining with the sublime.

I think the two ladies are equally good for me.

November 18, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterowl

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