dir: Park Chan-wook
Goodness gracious me what nasty heroic stuff is delivered to my disbelieving eyeballs by this amazing film.
I shouldn’t really be surprised, should I? This South Korean director has been making stunning, lurid, incredibly violent films for decades, all of which I think I’ve seen, from Joint Security Area to the Vengeance trilogy to his American forays into creepy family dynamics (the little seen Stoker) and end of the world – late stage capitalism allegories (Snowpiercer).
The Handmaiden is no less perplexing / shocking / surprising, even if it technically qualifies as a period piece, and a very weird period piece at that. Lifted from the pages of a novel set in Victorian times (Fingersmith by Sarah Waters), the plot is very similar, but the outcome is vastly different. The setting in this flick is probably a bit hard to wrap one’s head around if you’re not Korean or don’t know much about World War II, but it’s not like it matters that much. It’s set during the occupation of Korea by the Japanese, which means these Korean characters are acting awfully Japanese a lot of the time.
It being a time of war, naturally the people that get by the ‘best’ are the grifters, the con artists, the black marketeers, thieves and forgers. Among them rises a jerk who styles himself a Count no less (Ha Jung-woo), with plans to make off with a rich Japanese woman’s fortune. To help him out he convinces another con artist, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), to pretend to be a maid, and to wheedle her way into the heiress’s house and heart. Then, once the jerk marries Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), it’s off to the insane asylum with her, while he absconds with all the money.
The icy Lady Hideko lives with her uncle, who, this might come as something of a complete shock, is a terrible, terrible person. Just how terrible a person he is unfolds over the course of the movie, but at the very least we get the clear impression that he has creepy designs on his niece, not the least of which is the threat that he intends to marry her at some point.
Sook-hee, despite being a player herself, whose plan it is to get a percentage of that inheritance money, plays the naif fairly well in the domain of her aristocratic betters. She’s all wide-eyed and perplexed by all the mysteries of the stately manor and the enigmatically cool Hideko, but we’re not meant to forget that she’s planning a fate worse than death for the lady.
A cruel, cruel fate indeed. When the Count also turns up, getting ready to sink his claws into the little Lady, Sook-hee seems to be having misgivings about the plan and even moreso, misgivings about hurting Hideko. Is it…is it possible that the grifter has fallen for her mark?
As the first of three parts ends, we realise that the intended mark and the actual mark are not who we thought they were, and that the story is even more complicated and convoluted than we thought possible. Even us, with our jaded hearts and dusty palates, even we can be surprised!
What fools we were, eh? Foolishly stumbling along assuming we knew what was going on, what was lurking in people’s hearts and in the forbidden sections of the mansion, in the malevolent book collection of Hideko’s uncle. But we didn’t have a clue.
It’s gorgeously shot and composed like all his films, it does have a recursive structure that eventually explains everything, but unlike most of his other films, this has a dedicated erotic element to it, and, at that, it’s almost a heroic celebration, dare I say it, of lesbian sex. Let me just put it this way: Even I was shocked by how explicit many of the scenes were. Not in terms of nudity or anything like that, of which there is nothing left that could possibly shock me. I was more surprised by the, shall we say, enthusiasm with which some of the scenes were embraced by the main two actresses.
And, the thing is, I think it’s a bit problematic. I probably wouldn’t have had a problem with it years ago, but the notoriety of French film Blue is the Warmest Colour has impacted how I feel about these kinds of movies, ethically speaking. When that Cannes award-winning flick came out in 2014, murmurings that emerged afterwards indicated that the director was an abusive monster on set, and that it was especially awful for the actresses who mostly kind of regretted their involvement in this feted film, even if it raised their profiles and made them sought after by other, even more perverted jerk directors.
My question is: is it ethical for a director to essentially force two actresses to pretty much have lesbian sex on film, for the film, in something that isn’t actually pornography? There are plenty of women happy, willing and able to perform said acts on film for money, but they are essentially sex workers / performers who are paid for a specific performance. Compelling actors to do anything they don’t want to do is also a question of power, isn’t it, because the age old dilemma is that there’s stuff they’ll try on an unknown actor that they won’t dare on someone who can destroy their career.
I don’t know whether the actors here were ‘happy’ to do what they do here, and I hope it wasn’t a case of bullying or intimidation. But I can also say that there is far more to the flick that just the sex scenes, arresting as they are, but also that I hope it was all done professionally.
It is, after all, like its unlikely source material, a story about same-sex grifters who fall in love and cast off the patriarchal shackles of a society at a time where same-sex relationships weren’t exactly celebrated. And the two main actors sell the hell out of their relationship, not only to the point where I believed it, but more importantly to the point where I cared what happened to them and desperately wanted them to succeed in this terrible male pervert dominated world.
The Japanese occupation is not as terrible as the strictures placed upon the women, both ‘noble’ and servant class, both lady and con artist, by men who can have them arbitrarily locked away, their personhood and autonomy so easily taken away from either of them. In one case it’s the vile uncle who controls every facet of Lady Hideko’s life, but commoner Sook-hee’s life is no less insecure at the hands of the guy leading the scam, who actually plans to see her destroyed in order to achieve his ambitions.
There is also the toll that the uncle’s control of Hideko has taken, and the implied impact it had on her aunt. Thankfully the extent of it isn’t made explicitly obvious to our poor eyes, but his depredations at least had the clear effect of compelling her aunt to seemingly hang herself, and to compel Hideko on a similar path as well. Not only does the pseudo-intellectual uncle Kouzuki pretend that his vast collection of literature is somehow something that elevates him above the common herd of humanity, but, with the aunt no longer around, it falls to Hideko to carry on her duties.
No, it’s not what you think – it’s even worse. She is forced to give readings to an audience of the kinky shit Uncle Pervert has been amassing all these years – a library of sadomasochism and depravity. Sure, the audience might like it, might like it a whole hell of a lot, but Hideko is deadened inside by the exposure to her uncle’s world. The original grifter’s plan to seduce her with sweet words and costume jewellery isn’t going to work when he sees how utterly jaded she’s become. In some ways she is already dead, if indeed she does not crave death as a release.
That is, until Sook-hee comes along, of course.
Not only is this a flick about cons and grifts within bigger cons and crueller grifts, it is, strangely enough, a story about female emancipation and liberation from shitty family and social structures, not only through ‘loving’ each other, but through exacting specific, vicious revenge. The liberation may not be permanent, we have no way of knowing, but at least they’re free from the Japanese, from the uncle, from the con-artist and from the strictures and severities of 1930s conservative Korean culture.
And they’re still having great, mind-blowing sex!
As much as it seems endorsing or championing this flick is pretty suspect, especially years after the fact, let me apologise to Chanwook Park and to any potential reader (for taking so long), as if to pretend that something that sounds like exploitative trash is Shakespeare or something, and let me assure you that I finally caught up with this and watched it twice on that most wholesome of streaming services, being Netflix. This is an accomplished and amazing film from an accomplished and amazing director, and I loved it.
9 times there are times when I wished more women would rise up against their oppresses and destroy their smut collections out of 10
“Where I come from, it's illegal to be naive.” – The Handmaiden