Inspired by Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, The Handmaiden replaces Victorian England with Korea under Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century. Sookhee (Kim Taeri), a feisty hustler with street smarts to spare, is brought into a scheme concocted by a smooth con man (Ha Jung-Woo) who plans to steal the inheritance of a wealthy young woman, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), by making her fall in love with him with Sookhee’s help and steal her away from her uncle (Cho Jin-Woong), a dealer in antique and rare books. This plot summary only scratches the surface of a film that is part Gothic horror, part Restoration comedy, part erotic thriller and, most of all, the basest of genre pictures.
Park Chan-wook is no stranger to lush, operatic fare like The Handmaiden. He is a fearless director who doesn’t refrain from using simple, obvious techniques such as extreme zooms and fast forwards (both of which we see here). He makes most of his Western contemporaries seem timid in comparison. His unrestrained gusto is why he is still one of the most intensely cinematic directors working today. At his best, we are treated to truly thrilling and rich work such as Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. At his worst, we are subjected to music video visuals with little substance in Lady Vengeance or the tone-deaf portrayal of mental illness in I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Ok.
The Handmaiden, like Park’s previous films, revels in its circus tightrope act of tones and genres. Sometimes it is just north of being a screwball comedy or even a farce. In fact, in the director’s cut of the film, when the Count successfully infiltrates the household and meets up with Sookhee later, he does a cartwheel out of glee at having pulled off the first step of his con. Thankfully, it is because of Park’s absolute control of the material that the film works. Park clearly let his production team go wild since every frame of this film is chock full of period detail. Yet the editing is quick and modern with relatively brief cuts. Also, on a second viewing, the storytelling is remarkably clear and efficient, despite all the plot’s twists and turns, because Park likes to rely on striking yet purposeful visuals to drive his narrative. Park clearly knew that despite how tempting it was to show off all the magnificent work that he and his top-notch crew had done, he still had a story to tell and that it would collapse under its own weight if not told in a judicious manner.
That the actors are not subsumed by the sumptuous nature of the production is truly a miracle. Kim Taeri’s Sookhee could have been a bumbling fool with her brusque manner and inept attempts to pretend that she is more sophisticated than she really is. Ha Jung-woo’s Count Fujiwara could have been a comic lothario. Yet Ha as the slimy count has a decorum that barely suppresses the rank greed and materialism of his character. Cho Jin-Woong as the uncle is the opposite of Ha’s character as a creature of naked desire and lust that no amount of high class pretensions can hide.
But the film belongs to both Kim Minhee (Hideko) and Kim Taeri (Sookhee) who give fiercely brave performances – Taeri playing earthy and brusque and Minhee playing sophisticated and coy. They are also perhaps Park’s most complex female characters, which should also be attributed to his long time collaborator and co-screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung, whose influence can be seen in Park’s work ever since Lady Vengeance, which had the first of the striking heroines found in his films. Park has also attributed his interest in the story to the fact that he has a daughter and the influence of LGBTQ friends in his life.
Despite the notoriety of the explicit nature of the film and the relationship between the two leads, The Handmaiden is really interested in how much of attraction and our perception of people are influenced by external, malicious forces. For much of the film, Sookhee believes her mistress is the fragile, naive, childlike doll that the fake Count and other people have told her that she is. Hideko believes that Sookhee is an unrefined opportunist who tries too hard to hide her greed. If the stakes weren’t so high, The Handmaiden could have been a typical romantic comedy where the two leads initially hate each other and end up head over heels in love by the end. All of this artifice is manufactured by the Count and the uncle, and can easily stand in to represent the structures that patriarchy creates to suppress women. It is notable that when they take ownership of their bodies and cross into the sexual realm that a significant breakthrough happens in their relationship, one that the men are mostly clueless about.
As for how the sex scenes are presented, people have predictably taken issue with the explicit content of the film. Some of the more intelligent critiques focus on how much these scenes are dominated by the male gaze. Yet a large part of The Handmaiden relates to the male gaze and dominance and how these women are subjected to it, so it would make sense that the scenes play out in the way they do – with an intense admiration of female beauty and the thrill of a taboo sexuality. Sarah Waters herself explored this idea best in a Guardian interview when she said that the women are “appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of expressing their desires.”
Waters also mentioned that Park told her that he saw the relationship between Sookhee and Hideko as being a rebuke of Japanese colonialism. Few Western reviewers commented on this dynamic, which is strange because Park does not dance around the issue at all and this is arguably the main subject of his film rather than the lesbian relationship at its center. Their love was not just a sexual transgression in the context of this time. Basically, if people in the film had known about the relationship, they would have been just as horrified that it was between a Japanese noblewoman and a common Korean servant as they would have been that it was between two women. It is no coincidence that the most villainous characters are the ones who long to be the most Japanese such as the Count and the Uncle. The more sympathetic characters are more “Korean,” such as Sookhee and Hideko, who at first learns Korean to know what the servants are saying about her but soon becomes an unintentional ally.
During this time, Korea was inundated with Western culture, all thanks to the Japanese who were great admirers of it, and it is seen as both an overbearing and insidious presence in this film. It is Park’s keen eye that elevates this film to a sharp critique of Western patriarchy as channeled by the Japanese, the effects of which are felt in Korea even today. Park has always managed to tap into the dark recesses of society through disreputable forms, and The Handmaiden is just as disreputable as any of his other films, in the best possible way of course.