Director: Park Chan-wook
Writers: Chung Seo-kyung and Park Chan-wook
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-won, Cho Jin-woong
North American premiere: October 28, 2016
The devil’s in the details they say, and no one knows that better than Park Chan-wook. His newest film, The Handmaiden, takes audiences into 1930s Korea with a pickpocket-turned-lady’s maid and an unexpected, unstoppable romance. Park unwraps each layer of intrigue in three parts, his careful directorial eye setting the stage for a story about the spokes of desire: for power, for sex, for attention, for security.
Young thief Nam Sook-hee (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) opens the film with a goodbye, setting off for her new job as the lady’s maid to a Japanese aristocrat. Park Chan-wook sets the historical details loosely here–we see the Japanese soldiers marching through Sook-hee’s small town, frightening the children following them.
The Japanese occupation of Korea is still a scar that exists, with thousands of Koreans forced to forget their language and learn Japanese, and others eagerly embracing their colonizers to ensure survival and success. Rich Uncle Kouzuki (an unsettling role done masterfully by Cho Jin-woong) is among the latter, living in a Japanese/British fusion-style house deep in the mountains with his wife’s niece Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Hideko is conman Count Fujiwara’s (Ha Jung-woo) newest target, and he employs Sook-hee as his mole to win the lady’s trust and capture her inheritance. As Sook-hee discovers the depravity hidden within the walls of Kouzuki’s mansion, Hideko becomes a driving force towards freedom in more ways than one.
The Handmaiden is my first Park Chan-wook film, having given up on Stoker when I tried to watch it a few years ago. Its run time, a substantial two hours and 25 minutes, requires commitment. That’s not to say that watching the film was exhausting–I was engaged for the entirety of it, even knowing how the story would play out. The source material, Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, is reimagined with a luxurious eye, and it’s easy to get lost in the details that Park shares generously with his audience. Indeed, it almost seems as though Park has their desires in mind as the film progresses.The material lusciousness of Hideko’s wardrobe and quarters does not go unseen–Park lingers on drawers full of gloves as Sook-hee helps her lady prepare for another session of reading practice. Sook-hee herself seems to read the director’s mind, tugging out hatboxes and kimonos to live vicariously through her mistress. In this way, we are drawn into Hideko’s world, a world impeccably dressed and set over glass.
It’s a fragile world, as Sook-hee discovers, the balance upended by her arrival and connection to Lady Hideko. As in Fingersmith, the lady and the maid fall in love. As in Fingersmith, their relationship sparks quickly and ripples through the house. We know that the relationship is based on a lie, but is it really? Is every character as simple as they seem at first glance: the maid, the lady, the conman? Park does change the plot significantly in the second half of the film, eliminating some key connection points, and spends more time developing Hideko’s backstory in relation to her uncle. The change works for the film, though it doesn’t do much to keep the length down (run time is 125 minutes).
There is no denying that every actor in this film was perfectly cast, their talent obvious in every glance. Kim Min-hee plays Hideko’s layers like a master pianist, and the chemistry between her and Kim Tae-ri pulses through the screen. A single tilt of the head from Sook-hee is enough to stop Hideko in her tracks, as well as the audience’s hearts. So much is exchanged in soft glances and long stares that the sex scenes almost feel inevitable, the audience releasing a sigh of relief when Hideko and Sook-hee’s connection takes on that physical dimension. But that calm is short-lived as both women must now navigate their individual paths towards a future that has shifted towards the possibility of something more.
That loss of pretense, the acknowledgment of truth that can’t be hidden–they power the latter half of the film as it reveals the threads we might not have seen being weaved by each character. While both the Count and Kouzuki live clinging to half-truths, Hideko and Sook-hee find that their connection calls for something else, and requires more of them that they thought possible. The question is whether or not they’re willing to do what it takes to have that future.
Ultimately The Handmaiden is a romance, albeit one with a little more gore and perversion (on the men’s parts than anything else) than might be expected. I know that I found myself uncomfortable with the male gaze perspective in the longevity of the sex scenes, though I do question if that was really the reason, or if I am still shaking off the internalized judgment society teaches us to make about lesbians. (Full disclosure: I am a cishet woman.) I don’t know the answer to that right now, and I continue to think my way through it. The criticism of the film Blue is the Warmest Color presents a similar issue, as the story itself was written by a queer woman and adapted by men. Undeniably, and maybe unavoidably, the male gaze was present in those sex scenes as it is in The Handmaiden.
I do expect that my reactions are partly because we don’t get these kinds of stories in media very often, and so much of what we are fed is damaging rhetoric against queer love stories. We also don’t get to see many of these stories told by queer writers and filmmakers. Normalizing love stories like The Handmaiden is an important part of fighting against that, of calling out the patriarchal focus in many societies, and how women and their relationships are disrespected and underestimated.