The Handmaiden, like all of Park Chan-wook’s films, uses harsh methods to test the viewer’s fortitude, challenging their senses before rewarding their wisdom. Borrowing a good deal of its story from the Victorian-set novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden spins its gears to craft a uniquely modern parable (on antiquated gender roles) through the stylish vogue of the Victorian-inspired bodice-ripper—yet even that would inadequately describe what Park Chan-wook accomplishes here. Lest you find yourself repulsed by the heavily indulgent male gaze held on the two female leads (played self-sufficiently by Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri) you may overlook the beefed-up anti-patriarchal overtones or maybe the less obvious, and yet equally anatomical, feminist tract fueling this unclassed, undisciplined and singular feat of—nerve deep—sensory overload. It derives inspiration from the paintings of classic woodblock-prints (The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is directly referenced), and the published works of two-hundred year old shunga (Japanese erotic art); both of which had always subjected women to the fantasies and perversion of men.
The Handmaiden’s fixation on feminine grace, duplicitous personalities and white-knuckle suspense seem to flirt with Hitchcock, but the film—body and soul—is irrepressibly Park Chan-wook. You couldn’t mistake the absurdist humor which encapsulates even his most tragically powerful moments. Or the sublime beauty he captures even at his most grotesque (the image of wood-encased curtains sliding opening to reveal a lush snowfall is perhaps the most striking and uncomfortable vaginal symbol of the cinema since the notorious “phallic statue penetration” scene in A Clockwork Orange). That being said, the sumptuous morality of The Handmaiden comes almost entirely from the bravely sexual and expressly romantic study of two class-opposite women, a handmaiden (a pickpocket in actuality) named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) and an heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee).
Sook-hee is part of an intricate plot orchestrated by a conman named Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to infiltrate Lady Hideko’s manor and steal her fortune. Once inside the strapping (and malevolent) Fujiwara plans on wooing Lady Hideko with the help of Sook-hee, in hopes of marrying the heiress, putting her into the madhouse and, along with the pickpocket, running off with the Lady’s fortune. Like Oldboy before it The Handmaiden doesn’t exactly give us a straightforward scenario. It makes an effort to purposely mislead and subvert plot expectations in order to culminate toward broader moral truths.
The film is marked by three distinct parts, each one is a weird shift of character perspective and sympathetic outreach (they appear as so: Part I, Part II & Part III). In Part I we get the perspective of the pickpocket Sook-hee; her go for broke mission to overcome poverty (in Japanese-occupied South Korea) is stymied by an affection that inevitably develops between her and the heiress; when their eyes lock for the first time they become affixed to each other’s souls. Sook-hee’s relationship to Lady Hideko, for all its sexual bravado, dresses the lonely heiress in agonizing pathos. In turn, the Lady’s pathos seem to expand Sook-hee’s moral dimensions, showing her as genuinely compassionate and caring, even while she hesitantly proceeds with her evil plot. When the second act commences there’s a complete narrative inversion. When Lady Hideko is placed in the plot’s driver seat, we see a completely different side of her character as well as Sook-hee’s.
By shifting the two women’s perspective Park Chan-wook is creating a surprisingly effective power play. He doesn’t prefer either character (morally or otherwise), he acknowledges them equally, understanding and empowering their sense of purpose and motivation. When truths and untruths emerge, that moment (and the ones afterward) become something of a cinematic treasure chest—dramatic irony, beautifully expressed themes, (literal) gallows humor and deeply-felt emotion all bottled into a brief cacophonous opera of postmodern romance. The sexuality of its female characters have met with some criticism, particularly from those who believe their sexual encounters to be counteractive (or downright contradictory) to the film’s empowerment of his feminist themes. While there’s a legitimate point to made with some of these arguments aesthetically, there’s something inarguable about their fundamental purpose—Sook-hee and Lady Hideko’s sexual encounters are about the two reconquering of their bodies and fantasies. The Handmaiden isn’t subtle but expressive; moments like when the “male gaze” is turned into a literal audience of penguin-suited men (watching a woman demean herself by performing “talking porn”) are not only allegorical nods to modern concepts, but incisive evocations of the bare-faced misogyny brought upon by class and culture.
It’s a shame that it’s only when Park Chan-wook unveils a muscular liberal mind behind his unapologetic grotesqueness that general audiences seem more readily willing to approve of his work. Beyond that, The Handmaiden is in and of itself a sublime directorial accomplishment. The camera sometimes takes a persona of its own, coming across as deterministic and multifaceted as the film’s narrative drive; sometimes prowling toward subjects and point-of-interests like a predator stalking its prey. Other times it’ll push into into extreme close-up, sometimes to fetishize brimming sexual tension or to enforce a closed-in oppression. As per usual with Park Chan-wook, his casting choices are never off. Aside from the two talented women orchestrating this triumph, the two prominent male presences leave a surprising impression. Ha Jung-woo conveys a crucial amount of dignity as the lowly conman, Fujiwara, who dreams of becoming rich enough to not even look at the price of wine as he orders it. The other is Ha Jung-woo, a peculiar show-stealing performance, as Lady Hideko’s patriarchal overlord.
The Handmaiden is a different beast than all of Park Chan-wook’s most notable features (The Veangance Trilogy, Thirst and Stoker) but it’s undoubtedly a Park Chan-wook achievement: impassioned, impenetrable, incendiary and deeply heartfelt. It eschews the meditative philosophy and abstruse moral subjectivty of Oldboy or Thirst to invoke a more universal moral outcry, expressing in plain terms what’s right and what’s wrong without the slightest self-perceived wrongness implied. As condescending as this type of platitude may sound, the result of the film is anything but. The Handmaiden is his Park Chan-wook’s most inspirited and uplifting film, celebrating the liberation of the mind above all else.