Milo Garner reviews Park Chan-wook’s acclaimed romantic period thriller.
Warning: this review is based on the extended cut of the film and contains spoilers.
The Handmaiden is a perfect fit for Park Chan-wook’s canon. This is a dark, devilishly twisting, and blackly comic period piece that constantly subverts its audience’s expectations. Transposing Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith from Victorian Britain to Korea under Japanese colonial rule, it follows the pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as she enters the household of wealthy heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), in a scheme to convince Hideko to marry Sook-hee’s employer: a conman going by ‘Count Fujiwara’ (Ha Jung-woo). At first presenting itself as an affecting period drama, The Handmaiden ultimately unfolds into a tale of double, triple and quadruple crosses and explores themes of female empowerment and the rejection of patriarchy.
As the first part of the film unfolds the narrative moves in a fairly typical manner. Hideko seems to be a hopelessly innocent and sheltered lady to whom sex is a foreign concept. There are moments of coquettishness, some apparent ellipses in the narrative, but in the moment these are mostly cast aside. We are invited to ponder, fleetingly, if Hideko can truly be so naïve, only for the narrative to apparently confirm it. Meanwhile, beneath the trickery of the Count, Sook-hee finds herself with a secret of her own, as she and Hideko – or so it looks – fall in love. Sook-hee tries to sabotage her own scheme with the Count, but to no avail, and his plan to steal Hideko’s wealth continues smoothly. It concludes with a heart-wrenching moment of betrayal in which Sook-hee must finally follow through with the Count’s plan, and have Hideko admitted to an asylum.
By this point the film has already been little short of a marvel – a compelling tale of love and conflicting interests, with comedy, thrill, and a beauty rarely seen in even the most lavish period films. The characters may have been unremarkable, but thus far The Handmaiden has provided all one might want from a film; if the film was not by Park Chan-Wook. One of the best directors currently working, Park’s films often succeed through their ability to reframe a plot that seemed clear – Oldboy has one of the most effective twists in cinematic history, while Joint Security Area manages to redefine relationships assumed from the opening several times. Given this context, it’s incredible that Park can still surprise, but with the aid of Waters’ novel he does – rather than Hideko being admitted to the asylum at the first part’s conclusion, it is Sook-hee. The victim becomes villain, and suddenly everything we’ve seen prior to this moment is thrown into question.
As the second part opens, we return to Hideko as a child, being taught to read under the eye of her cruel uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Introduced in the first part as a particularly evil-looking creature, his black eyeglasses are matched by a tongue blackened from habitual licking of his pen nib (a brilliant choice in character design, I might add). However, we soon find him to be more than an authoritarian book collector who forces his niece to read for untold hours a day, as the nature of his library becomes apparent – an enormous selection of antique pornography. Suddenly the cobra statue standing at the head of his hall seems to take on a new meaning, reflecting Snake Plissken’s tattoo of the same animal creeping up from his beltline in Escape from New York. Hideko’s incredible naivety in the first part is inverted, as we see her made to read pornography before a lecherous audience of sweaty, suited men. In contrast to the bright cinematography characterising the first section, the opening of this sequence takes place almost entirely in darkened interiors: we’ve come to the shadowy underbelly of the narrative in more ways than one. As the story moves along we find that Hideko and the Count were themselves plotting together and had intended to betray Sook-hee all along. As a result we watch many scenes from part one again, now in a totally different context and with some of the ellipses filled in. Beyond the various plots working against one another, the love story between Hideko and Sook-hee is also recontextualized, and we realise it may be the only element of truth in this film filled with deceit. Together, the two hatch a third scheme against the conman Count and the lascivious Kouzuki, reframing the final scene of part one for a third time.
In mentioning the love story, a controversy must also be addressed. The sex scenes between Sook-hee and Hideko have been criticized by some as representing the male gaze, which would be an ironic reality given the film’s denouncement of the excesses of male fantasy in pornography. Given Park Chan-Wook and his cinematographer, Chung Chung-hoon, are both men, there might be some technical basis for the accusations. And I would agree that while the sex scenes are engrossing, beautifully captured, and even moving, they often linger a little too long, perhaps at the cost of some of their artistry. However, given Park’s co-writer, Chung Seo-kyung, was a woman, and that he took extensive advice from a female queer friend of hers, there are better explanations to the presentation of the sex scenes in the film. Prime amongst these is the concept of patriarchy itself – while Hideko and Sook-hee are inherently rejecting its conventions for their own pleasure, they still exist within its frame. Hideko might be knowledgeable in sexual matters, but only through the writings of men, and so these are replicated – albeit in prioritizing the women involved she is effectively subverting her source material. So while one might accuse Park of some overindulgence, narrative hypocrisy might be an indictment over the mark.
That task of subverting the patriarchy is the general idea in the third part. While this section lacks the incredible twists that defined the first two, it replaces these with intense feelings of catharsis in which the two villains are outsmarted and outdone by the leading ladies. Due to the dark comedic edge The Handmaiden has played excellently between its thrills, this final part can revel in giving its antagonists what-for without getting lost in a mire of darkness or suffering. The final exchange between the Count and Kouzuki, for example, is equal parts gruesome and funny, though the scene might not appear so on paper. Part three ultimately wraps the film up as well as can be hoped, and only when considered in retrospect can Park’s achievement in The Handmaiden truly be appreciated. His pacing and plotting, even in the nearly three-hour-long extended edition, are peerless. The film remains constantly engaging from its first to its final frame. Chung’s cinematography is similarly brilliant, the brights of the exteriors and lush darks of the interiors playing off each other excellently, especially considering their narrative implications. Cho Young-wuk’s music is a cut above; characterized by layered ostinatos centred on piano and lush themes building on strings it accompanies the visuals wonderfully, and maximises the emotional hits when they come, and they come often. The acting is also superlative, particularly Kim Min-hee as Hideko, who manages to portray at least three different versions of her character simultaneously. To say this is Park Chan-wook’s best film would be a bold statement given the quality of his filmography up to now, but it seems a statement well justified. The Handmaiden is a masterpiece of period drama, utterly compelling in almost every aspect.
The Handmaiden is out now in UK cinemas in both theatrical and extended cut editions. See the trailer below: