Ever since Oldboy (2003), Park Chan-wook has been one of the most exciting filmmakers out there. And with the recent release of The Handmaiden, adapted from Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, he has proved yet again he is able to reinvent the thriller genre. Set in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, The Handmaiden revolves around a bright-eyed handmaiden, a rich heiress and her perverted uncle, and a scoundrel who tries to pull an impossible scam. The South Korean auteur avoids his usual über-narrative, which indulges in sensationalism and tortures, and deals with Waters’ Victorian thriller carefully.
More attention is paid to themes of “female rebellion” and “crisis of national identity.” As a result, the impeccable visuals, accomplished by erotic colors and a camera that moves as smooth as the silky robes hung loosely on the characters, may not be the most important reason to watch this film. How Park Chan-wook manages to hint at broader topics such as gender and national relations? That is what makes this film delectable. (PS: 4.5/5)
REVIEW BY FF2 MEDIA INTERN PEIER SHEN
The film opens with Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) passing a baby to some adults. She is to be sent to a Japanese mansion to work as a maid for a young heiress. The pouring rain sensationalizes the scene. And we are quick to form these thoughts – a young pitiable girl, forced to abandon her identity and her child, has to work for a rich, foreign lady. How ironic? How unfair? But this impression will be proved to be false. Soon, Sookee will mock her employer (and us) for our naïveté and pity in her narration of the story. It turns out that the baby is not Sookee’s and she, in fact a pickpocket, just helps to raise them so they can be sold as slaves for Japanese families.
Meanwhile, another plot is revealed through Sookee’s flashback that a con man (Ha Jung-woo), skillfully disguised himself as a Japanese Count, plans to get to the heiress’s inheritance through seduction. To do so, he needs a spy and he chooses Sookee over the others. In fact, the weeping adults in the beginning are crying about not being chosen to go. Of course, the audience again jumps at the chance to empathize with the Lady of the mansion, Hideko (Kim Min-hee). She is a pale beauty, haunted by bad dreams about her aunt’s suicide. She is an innocent doll, threatened by her tyrannical uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) and the greedy Count. We see the story unfolds through Sookee’s perspective – there is the enticing tension developed between Sookee and Hideko; there is the pursuit of the fake Count; there is the mysterious library where the sadistic uncle locks Hideko in to practice her readings.
But is Sookee’s plan going to work out? Is the innocent really innocent? What is the sin of this tale? And if you have enjoyed these twists and turns that remind us of the delightful BBC series, Hustle, or David O. Russell’s American Hustle, The Handmaiden rewards its audience with darker and more erotic intrigues. After all, Park Chan-wook has mastered the art of tease: nothing is what it appears to be.
Well, there is also the cameo of the octopus that Dae-Su has swallowed in Oldboy. We are to see it devouring a naked maiden in the uncle’s collection of rare erotic fiction and later in his dungeon. The Handmaiden, however, is far less violent and far less cruel, compared to the director’s other works in Korea. Subversive humor has taken the place of Park Chan-wook’s usual attention paid to depictions of physical torture. When the impeccable Hideko, with her creamy shoulder and delicate fingers, turn out to be horrible at painting, the audience cannot stop laughing at this enjoyable dissonant trait that undermines Hideko’s image of feminine perfection.
Though ever since Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color, directing two actresses to be that vulnerable on screen has always been problematic. To what extent are we subjected to the male gaze? However, here the explicit lesbian romance between Sookee and Hideko is justified. Of course, Sarah Waters’s daring Victorian novel also describes the romance between female characters rather explicitly. And it is precisely the language, or in this case, the visual of physicality that demonstrates women’s rebellion against the greedy, cruel, and perverted patriarchy. As Sookee and Hideko pleasure themselves with the heavy ball pendants, the same that Kouzuki uses to punish Hideko, the women break free from the society that subjects them under fantasies and violence.
©Peier Shen FF2 Media (10/28/16)
Top Photo: Hideko (Kim Min-hee)
Middle Photo: Hideko and Sookee (Kim Tae-ri)
Bottom Photo: Hideko helps Sookee undress
Photo Credits: Jae-Hyeok Lee
Q: Does The Handmaiden pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
After all, it is a film that uses lesbian romance to depict women’s liberation. Naturally, communication between women characters – not only between Haideko and Sookee but also between Haideko and her aunt – are instrumental.