Chances are, you’ll have a great time, because the only thing better than low expectations is none at all.
A friend wanted to go see The Handmaiden, so I obliged, opting for some reason not to do much research on it. I think I knew it was a Korean film, but that’s it. I trusted my pal’s taste to know she wouldn’t lead me astray, and she sure didn’t. It’s impossible to go wrong with Park Chan-wook.
He’s a true genius, unlike any filmmaker ever. His films take time to adjust to, because they’re often so brutal and complicated and disjointed, but I assure you that I intend all of those adjectives as compliments. The harshest aspects of humanity somehow seem graceful when he’s behind the camera, and The Handmaiden is a brilliant example of that. So is Oldboy, of course.
It’s a love story, or maybe a lust-turned-love story, with some tragedy and intrigue thrown in. Park based his screenplay on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, which I now want to read, and adapted the setting from Victorian Britain to Japanese Korea. (Notable and slick: Both Japanese and Korean are spoken in the movie, and the subtitles are very awesomely color-coded.) At the center is handmaiden Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee, truly mesmerizing). Sook-hee is placed in Hideko’s household by a con artist, Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo, infuriatingly charismatic), to steal from her, but she ends up instigating Hideko’s sexual awakening. Hideko, though, is engaged to Count Fujiwara, ever-present to observe his pawns in action. Hideko can’t bring herself to accept her attraction to Sook-hee — and neither can society, of course — so she goes through with the marriage to Fujiwara. The movie is structured in three parts, also, so after all this, we see (a) just how Hideko came to be as fucked up as she is, with most of the blame for that placed on her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a bastard of an old man and (b) how Sook-hee works her way through a fucked-up system to regain her freedom, both social and sexual.
It’s easy to get caught up in the domineering-male tone, and to fault the movie for that, but hang tight. There are layers to this movie — triple, even quadruple-crosses — that would be clunky in the hands of any other director.Park is deft and sharp, allowing even the smallest visual and structural details to come full circle. What seems perverse or hetero-normative or overly XY-chromosomal will eventually flip in favor of the female and the underrepresented — especially in that era. Plus, Japan and Korea make for such tranquil, peaceful backdrops, which contrast starkly but beautifully with the emotional and sexual agony playing out before them.
It’s a truly gorgeous movie about truly awful societal norms, constructed in the elegant, precise way that only Park can. His mind is a fascinating place to be; step in for a few hours.