Park Chan-wook’s latest is a duplicitous tale of eroticism that features some of the directors most mature, intense material to date
“At that moment one drop of insanity could cause someone to go completely mad.”
Park Chan-wook is a master of modern cinema with all of his films not only tackling radically different material, but also being projects that are all jaw-droppingly beautiful in different ways. The director’s most recent films—I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Okay, Thirst, and Stoker—all exhibit an evolving filmmaker that is strengthening his stranglehold of the medium.
Park Chan-wook has gained a lot of notoriety with his Vengeance Trilogy, but The Handmaiden arguably acts as the final piece in his Lust and Temptation Trilogy that began in Thirst, was carried on in Stoker, and blossoms many of its themes here. More specifically, all of these films are heavily interested in the joy of eroticism and liberation from feelings of guilt. The Handmaiden succeeds in the culmination of these ideas, but also just as a methodical tale of erotic manipulation. It’s My Fair Lady meets Audition.
Set in a Japan-occupied Korea in the 1930s, the story sees Count Fujiwara hiring a pickpocket and thief extraordinaire, Sook-hee, to become the handmaiden of the guarded and fragile mistress, Lady Hideko. Sook-hee’s job is the biggest con of all with her mission being to make Hideko fall for Fujiwara, who can then bleed the wealthy woman dry. In the end though, Sook-hee ends up becoming enchanted with Hideko herself and all of the characters in play gradually become involved in a growing love polygon. Park has adapted the story from British author Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith, but has changed enough core concepts that Waters’ novel is more of just an inspiration here.
Park Chan-wook certainly plays into the heavy deception that is hanging in the air. He turns The Handmaiden into a story of manipulation that’s as intricate as the one on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, as gradual a role reversal as The Double, and dripping in nearly as many sexual head games as Dangerous Liaisons. This is just a heavily duplicitous movie in general where you need to be suspicious of not only every line of dialogue, but also every micro-gesture. Nothing here is real.
The film kicks off with Sook-hee being plucked from her desolate Cinderella-esque life before being thrown into this completely new existence. If the shift wasn’t apparent enough, Park changes the color palette because this isn’t his first rodeo. Sook-hee’s dreary, muted past is left behind for this vibrant, colorful future and the film bleeds this. She’s Tamako now.
Carrying on this idea, when Sook-hee/Tamako first arrives at her new home, the camera swirls around the geography conveying the same apprehension that flitters through Sook-hee as she takes in the gravity of her situation. It’s not long though before she grabs ahold of her new surroundings while simultaneously commandeering the narrative. We’re treated to Sook-hee’s delightful backstory where she’s practically a superhero whose power is to grift and con. There are some great examples of just how long she’s been at this and just how damn good she is and suddenly the lamb in this situation is in fact a glowing radioactive lion. No one is as innocent as they appear to be. Every single character has acid running through their veins. The detour into Hideko’s past is particularly crushing, both literally and figuratively.
Voyeurism is a big theme for the film and the sprawling, constantly moving camerawork helps illustrate that idea visually. Park’s visual language and his capacity for interweaving the decadent with the macabre have never been stronger. At times it feels like you’re in some haunted lullaby. Likewise, there are scenes demonstrating how efficiently Uncle Kozuki’s servants and household staff work, almost like clockwork. Their performance is as precise as the carefully orchestrated seduction being served out, too. It’s all clockwork.
The Handmaiden features a great, fairy tale-like score that just flows seamlessly with the picture. There are a lot of flutes and woodwinds in play to highlight all of this elegance. Unfortunately that bewitching track from the trailer doesn’t seem to be found anywhere in the actual movie. All of this pairs well with the gorgeous shots of vistas and countrysides that Park puts in rotation. These shots almost feel a little out of place from Park’s typical visual language, but it feels appropriate for this period piece and they somehow even accentuate the antiquated year of the 1930s.
The film flourishes the most when it’s digging into Hideko and Sook-hee’s relationship, who seem to be slapping each other as much as they are having sex with one another. Park establishes their enabling, twisted relationship early on and uses the film’s lengthier runtime to continue to build it and turn the dynamic on its head (and back again). It even seems like this current telling of events just feels like the latest entry in generational, systemic conditioning.
Park’s film is a slow, deliberate story that isn’t afraid to take its time, but it’s also better off for doing so. This is certainly the least flashy of Park’s films, which I fear might inevitably earn it the reputation of being his most boring film. The Handmaiden might not be my favorite Park Chan-wook picture (that’s an honor that still likely goes to Lady Vengeance or Thirst), but it’s anything but boring. It’s thoughtful and delicate, but then painfully aggressive and jarring, much like the dynamic in some fractured, abusive S&M-infused relationship. It’s kind of uncanny how the film can effectively tap into a damaged relationship purely through something like it’s cinematography and art direction.
That being said, there are still a number of moments in the movie that are exercises in the unusual. Most of the material with Kozuki is a trip, especially with how he treats Hideko. Her Japanese is so precise that he makes her read sexy S&M stories to Japanese businessmen who get off on hearing stories like “Lizard Tongue” getting read. One component of these shows sees Hideko going one step further than reading, with her and a life-size marionette dummy becoming a living visual aid. It’s a stunning sequence to watch (and made me think of Park’s Cut segment in Three…Extremes). It’s definitely the first moment the vehicle really skips off the track and you realize that things might start getting a little more aggressively weird.
The film also lingers on a warning about the activities that go on in Kozuki’s cellar and when you finally end up spending some time in there it’s even more horrible than you could imagine. It’s an extremely satisfying resolution to what’s going on down there. This, like a lot of the film’s best material, sees saving for its final act, but when the psychosexual wreckage of missing fingers and bruised throats clears, the results are sublime.
The Handmaiden has made some waves regarding its crazily graphic, intense lesbian sex scenes (scenes that did a number on the ratings board for this film in some countries). Yes, they are intense and they really go at it, but as a testament to how strong their bond and love is amidst this heavy canvass of lies. The unstable POV shots while Hideko and Sook-hee are holding hands (and…um, scissoring) is utterly beautiful and one of the best shots from Park’s body of work. The scenes gets so graphic that Park could have called this Red is the Warmest Color (y’know, because of all the violence…). Even the sex toys that they use (yeah, you’re never going to look at bells the same way again) turn their lovemaking into a symphony of music and bell titters, as if some enchanted romance from a fairy tale. It’s fascinating to see Hideko’s other love scenes in juxtaposition to this one and how lacking they are in every aspect. They’re downright nightmares compared to the euphoria she experiences with Sook-hee.
On that note, The Handmaiden is a film heavily interested in the idea of female agency and empowerment. Fujiwara and Kozuki are frequently cast in unfriendly and perverse lights. Men in general are looked at unfavorably, with Hideko’s sex recitals only being a reflection of the dirty things that men are into. They are an impotent, powerless gender in this film and women are things of power and beauty. Park nails the point perfectly, while continuing to carry on the idea of female empowerment and sexuality through violence that is brought up in Stoker, Thirst, and sees culmination here.
The final twist that Park throws at his audience is the stuff that stories of this nature are made of with the conclusion being the perfect adrenaline-loaded cherry on top. The Handmaiden might not hit you right away. It might even take several viewings to fully unpack its riddle, but it’s sure to be a film that gets under your skin and sticks with you long after you’ve left the theater. More than anything, it has me curious what Park Chan-wook is going to tackle next.
‘The Handmaiden’ comes out with a limited release to theaters on October 21st