Note: The following review is spoiler-free.
I never know what to expect from a Park Chan-wook movie. Well, I expect something pulpy, dark and deliciously violent. But when I actually watch his films, they always find a way to surprise me. It’s darker, sexier and more violent than I can ever imagine, yet it remains profound and engaging.
The Handmaiden takes place in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea. An orphaned pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), and a con man, under the alias Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), plan a scheme to seduce and swindle a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), out of her vast inheritance. But complications arise when Sook-hee falls in love with Lady Hideko.
It should be noted that Hideko is at the mercy of her uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a tyrannical collector of erotica books. Kouzuki acquired his wealth by being a rat for the Japanese government, enabling them to colonize Korea. Hideko is the niece of his late wife, the daughter of a rich Japanese nobleman who killed herself to escape Kouzuki’s abuse. Kouzuki now seeks to marry his niece Hideko, who is now the heir to the fortune.
As a character points out early in the film, “What a sick fuck!”
That’s all the story I’ll give away. Like Refn’s The Neon Demon, Park’s films greatly benefit from the element of surprise. And trust me, you will be surprised. Not just by the explicit content, but also by the sheer craft of it all. The film seamlessly blends audio and visual stimuli, twisting and turning in a psychologically surreal way.
Just count the number of frames within frames. Listen to that ever-changing score. Let the movie absorb and overwhelm you. The Handmaiden is undeniably brilliant.
The Handmaiden is an adaptation of Sarah Water’s 2002 novel, Fingersmith. The English influence is clear; like the secluded mansion itself, the narrative is both Western and Eastern at the same time. There are references to German asylums and British clothing, and homages to Marquis de Sade and Akira Kurosawa.
And of course, there’s a swirling mix of Korean and Japanese, both spoken and written.
Speaking of which, Koreans generally have a strong opinion on Japanese colonization, and the way it threatened Korean culture. Strangely enough, The Handmaiden doesn’t particularly resent the Japanese. Instead, the film analyzes the idea of inauthenticity, both culturally and emotionally.
Look at Kouzuki for instance. As a Korean turncoat, he tries desperately to be Japanese. He works for the Japanese government, marries a Japanese woman and reads Japanese books. In one conversation, he praises Japan for being beautiful and condemns Korea for being ugly. But despite his best efforts, he’s just a disingenuous Korean.
Ironically, authenticity is a virtue in a story about con artists and liars.
So what is genuine? For men, it sure isn’t their love. They love women the same way they love erotica: laced in self-deception and fantasy. The men in The Handmaiden express their love violently, often sadistically. They fall for their own depraved sexual delusions.
Women, on the other hand, express their love softly and sensually. Even little moments become infused with passion and longing. The pleasure is not one-sided, but mutual.
Structurally, this two-and-a-half-hour-long thriller is divided into three parts, each with a different narrator. By the second part, the movie doubles back and retreads previous scenes with a fresh pair of eyes. Sometimes, lines are repeated in different situations by different characters, giving old lines a completely new context.
Or as the film puts it, “Even listening to the same story, people imagine different things.”
The nonlinear structure is elegantly handled. It’s complex, but revisited sequences are focused purely on adding new facts to the narrative. The film never feels dull or tedious.
I’m also surprised to find a bit of humour in Park’s latest feature. Unlike Oldboy or Stoker, The Handmaiden occasionally breaks its narrative flow for a joke. For example, there’s a scene where Fujiwara angrily forces Sook-hee to grab his crotch. At the end of their exchange, Sook-hee remarks: “Don’t make me touch your tiny joke of a cock again.”
I couldn’t help but stifle a laugh.
There’s a zeitgeist quality about the film. In an era where feminism is being scrutinized, The Handmaiden unabashedly celebrates the power of women. Sure, the explicit sexuality has raised questions over the potential “male gaze” of the film (similar to the controversy over Blue is the Warmest Colour). But I doubt this film objectifies women when a female character openly states: “No woman enjoys being taken by force.”
And even if it did, the sensationalism of it all makes The Handmaiden too trashy to take too seriously. Its main priority is to indulge in a fun, stylish potboiler saturated with eroticism and violence.
Overall, The Handmaiden seems like the perfect storm for Park Chan-wook. It’s a hodgepodge of themes that he’s explored before in his previous movies. It’s a pulpy genre affair that seems to be right up his alley, and even caters to his knack for combining different cultures using foreign source material. Park has once said that he wants to make movies that you can feel physically, not just intellectually. With The Handmaiden, he seems to accomplish both.
It’s as poetic as it is breathtakingly beautiful.