Film Review – The Handmaiden
My favorite Chan-wook Park film is Stoker partly because it is inspired by Shadow of a Doubt – my best-loved Alfred Hitchcock movie. He takes the two central characters and asks what would happen if they did in fact have similar natures. He’s not remaking or rebooting or re-anythinging; he’s taking inspiration from one film and creating something completely new. In his latest film The Handmaiden, Park takes a novel by English writer Sarah Waters, Fingersmith, and changes its setting from Victorian London to the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910 – 1945.) From what I understand, the beginning of the film sticks close to events of the book, but then goes its own direction in the end. (I haven’t read it, so I can’t say for sure.) And that’s what I like best about Park. He uses sources to create new things and doesn’t just make a pallid imitation of something that was already successful. Making movies based on books is a time-honored tradition, but I almost always think it’s better if the film does something different with the story. Otherwise, why bother? (A note before I get to the review; this film has some very explicit sex scenes, and I will be discussing them. Please be forewarned.)
Korean servant girl Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is starting a new job as handmaiden to Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Lady Hideko lives with her uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), a Korean collaborator who reveres all things English and Japanese, and spends her hours preparing to perform readings of her uncle’s rare book collection. It will be Sook-hee’s job to attend to her needs. Or so Sook-hee leads her to believe. She is actually a pickpocket placed in the home by a fellow Korean criminal, who has convinced everyone that he is the Japanese Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha). His plan is to seduce Hideko, get her to elope with him, turn her inheritance into cash, and then dump her off in an insane asylum. Sook-hee’s real job is to smooth things along for the faux Fujiwara, but it gets complicated when she and her mark develop a relationship much deeper than expected. Add multiple layers of secrets and deceptions, and you have a twisty tale of love and revenge.
This is a gorgeous film. With its saturated colors and attention paid to the smallest of visual details, this would be a treat to watch even if the story weren’t that great. But it is an interesting puzzle that constantly reveals itself to be going somewhere other than where you think it will. I do wish the disclosure concerning Sook-hee’s true purpose had been delayed just a little longer, but it’s a minor quibble. This is beautiful piece of gothic horror that worked for me in a way that Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak didn’t. And it is very much a horror film. The women here are at the complete mercy of vampires who drain them of their lives and autonomy. Okay, not vampires, just human men. What the women are forced to do for them and coerced to do to each other is horrifying, and it is only in an honest relationship with each other that they have even a chance to create something better. There is also some nasty gore and a very menacing octopus. Oh yeah, did I mention it’s weird? Cause it is. It’s also kind of funny. And there’s quite a lot of sex.
Okay, let’s talk about the sex. There is some extremely explicit simulated lesbian sex in this movie. It’s very artfully done, although I found Park’s obsession with symmetry to be a little off-putting. Also his emphasis on tongues and the occasional camera shot looking out from where someone’s lady parts would be killed the mood for me. So while I can see how some would find it sexy, I did not. And of course, being me, I spent a lot of time thinking about the politics of the whole thing. The relationship between the two women definitely represents an avenue of empowerment and fulfillment for them; but while not leeringly filmed, the male gaze is omnipresent. I assume that lesbians will do what they (and all underrepresented groups) have always had to do and cherry-pick the good stuff out of a problematic whole. The length and content of the sex scenes also contributed to the feeling that I was watching softcore porn and not just an erotic thriller. I also wondered about how this film would play differently in countries (like ours) where Asian women are fetishized. (I don’t think Park should have taken that into consideration when making a Korean film, it’s just a question I have.) And how is its feminist message received in South Korea? And what is the underlying subtext of having Korean actors playing Japanese characters? I’d say most of my enjoyment of this film came intellectually rather than viscerally, and while that’s a legitimate response to art, I wish it had played slightly less thinky for me. (Checking out other reviews, I don’t think that’s been a problem for most other people.) But it’s a film very much worth seeing if you are comfortable with explicit sexual content and the idea that women are not disposable.