Ah, I recently watched the Korean film The Handmaiden (Ah-gah-ssi), and I’ve been tentative to do a write-up because of how complicated my feelings were towards the movie. But I decided to break up my thoughts into smaller sections so that I could explore each aspect more thoroughly without the pressure of a cohesive statement on the film as a whole. It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before, and yet it feels so familiar somehow.
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is an insatiably stylish erotic film adapted from Sarah Water’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, which is originally set in Victorian-era England. Park fits the story into the era of Japan-ruled colonial Korea to tell the love story between Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), an illiterate swindler turned handmaiden, and Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress who, though well-off, suffers from her Uncle Kouzuki’s (Cho Jin-woong) tight grip on her future. Yearning to escape her poor life, Sook-hee strikes a deal with a commoner who disguises himself as a worldly man named Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). Sook-hee would become Hideko’s handmaiden and encourage her to marry the Count. Then, she and the Count would send Hideko away to a mental institution and run off with her money. But things get complicated. Sook-hee falls in love with the heiress. And without spoiling too much, Hideko actually has a plan of her own that Sook-hee doesn’t know about.
There’s a precise, snappy rhythm to Park’s storytelling, which feels familiar but is also thrillingly unpredictable. The structure reminds me of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where the truth is subjective to the one who tells it. The layers of love and betrayal richen its story. In the end, it’s the viewer who’s the real stranger to the entire situation—everyone else knows a little bit of everything about the events that led to the main offense.
Linguistically, it’s interesting to see the characters code-switch so often throughout the film. The code-switching between Korean and Japanese reveals a duplicity to each character that blurs the dichotomies of Japanese and Korean, male and female, and evil and good identities.
Feminist or Not Feminist? Is That Really the Question?
It’s a feminist film but I can’t assess how deeply feminist it is. Ultimately it’s a film about two queer women who find a tentative sense of sexual agency each other in a man’s world. And this world is a man’s man’s man’s world, where women are chastised physically and verbally for speaking their minds or posing contrarian opinions. As we learn more about her past, we see that Hideko has been nefariously abused her uncle who’s dead set on her inheritance. He hits her and calls her names when she speaks out of beat. As an adult woman, she’s still afraid of him locking her in the basement. Pushed to the margins of society, the women protect themselves either by closing off from others like Hideko or living their lives swindling people like Sook-hee.
On the other hand, there’s this gratuitousness to Park’s storytelling style which makes me hesitant about calling it deeply feminist. I guess the more meaningful question is does Park cater the film to a male gaze? It’s hard to directly answer yes or no. There’s an excessiveness to the erotica, simultaneously wanton and artful, that raises eyebrows. It could be argued that the explosive sexuality comes from a place of unrestrained self-expression, marking it as a declaration of female liberation. It could also be argued that though the film leverages a critique of men fantasizing about women, it recreates the very thing that it critiques through its rampant portrayal of sex. As viewers, we’re frequently looking at these women from higher angles. The camera is positioned, often, from straight above, which feels not only voyeuristic but also renders these women vulnerable spectacles.
The film flaunts a facetious tone, which is present in everything from the comically staccato love scenes to the casual cruelties and deceptiveness of each character. The facetiousness adds panache to the story but it can come off as distant. The female characters and their artfully kinky love scenes occasionally felt deviceful. What I mean is that the film can sometimes be so entrenched with a stylistic flourish that it left me yearning for more sincerity, for more character.
A Visual Feast, at Least
I have a lot of ambiguous feelings about the film but the one thing I did unabashedly enjoy was the aesthetics of the film. It looks beautiful—Park knows how to frame a shot. You can feel a lot of his influences from Hitchcock, the artful dolly shots and his employment of mis-en-scene—characters lurking in the background while the camera is focusing on another subject. The camerawork adds a sense of tension and suspense to the story, for sure. Each moment feels like a painting. As Jia Tolentino writes in her review of the film, there’s a real symmetry in the love scenes—the women look very similar and find within each other a sense of agency as they explore each other’s bodies. In terms of color, the movie is full of browns, greens, and blues, shifting between the banality of male abuse, the tentative bliss of first love, and the melancholy of female suppression.
There’s no doubt that Park Chan-wook has a distinct, enervating filmmaking style. The Handmaiden is an intense, exhilarating, and thought-provoking watch full of twists and visual rigor. The story is pretty good as well. The broader moral message of the film, entrenched in a cloud of seduction, can be more difficult to discern. At least in that difficulty, there’s a discussion to be had about the framing of the female body in filmmaking.