“The Handmaiden” is a 2016 Korean film by Park Chan-wook that premiered internationally at Cannes Film Festival, where it was highly anticipated and met with resounding critical acclaim. Many consider Park Chan-wook to be the filmmaker who put Korean cinema on the map for an international audience during the digital era. His most famous work is the visceral and tragic “Oldboy” (2003), which boasts a gritty and lurid visual style and an equally traumatizing and unforgettable story to match. However, whereas “Oldboy” was a deconstruction of the revenge genre as a part of Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, “The Handmaiden” is an exploration of the con artist heist genre, filled with deception, double identities, plot twists, sexuality, and love.
The film is set in 1930s Japanese occupied Korea and is based on Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith,” which is set in Victorian England. The story begins with Sookee, played by Kim Tae-ri (“Mr. Sunshine”), being sent to work as a handmaiden to Lady Hideko, a young woman living under the suffocating surveillance and control of her uncle who wishes to marry her and inherit her family fortune. However, it is later revealed that Sookee is a con artist working with one of Hideko’s suiters (The Count, played by Ha Jung-woo from “The Chaser”) to coax Hideko into falling in love with The Count and running away with him from her uncle. The Count then plans to drop Hideko off at a mental asylum after marrying her and inheriting her fortune. That is as far as I will go with regards to the plot.
As for the rest of the story, nothing is as it seems, no one is really how they appear to be, and the plot takes many twists and turns that put “The Usual Suspects” to shame as the narrative revisits past events through different perspectives, each revealing more than the last. Park is a magician as he misdirects the audience at every turn with incredibly fascinating and bracing cinematic sleights of hand that reaffirm and reexamine the power of cinematography, editing, language, exposition, and story structure.
Besides the story, the craftsmanship on display is inarguably masterful. There is a powerful emphasis on set design and costume design in the labyrinthine estate as the film’s tight composition overflows with luscious dresses, jewelry, furniture, and other symbols of wealth. It’s a beautiful film to look at. But as the beauty and exquisite nature of the film’s many objects and trinkets wears thin, one begins to sense the feeling of artificiality and emptiness in the air. Everything is surface level. In a sense, the characters mirror this superficiality as they thrive off of deception, lies, betrayal, and material desires, but only at first. As more and more is revealed about the characters, the story gains considerable depth, and the visual splendor of the film becomes secondary to character, emotional connection, and intimacy. Along with the visuals, the score evokes the same sense of beauty and virtuosity as it sweeps and swells, perfectly edited in tandem with the images during key moments of the film, making the plot twists and revelations hit that much harder and the moments of truth, freedom, and triumph shine that much brighter.
Like the rest of Park’s films, viewer discretion is advised as the images, sounds, and subject matter of “The Handmaiden” are definitely not for the squeamish; there are several explicit scenes containing eroticism, torture, pornography, and suicide. It is worth noting that the film’s display of lesbian sex, which also exists in Waters’ novel, has been scrutinized by the queer community in the same way that 2013’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” was; the author of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” herself was displeased with the film adaptation, stating that the sex scenes were “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and made [the author] feel very ill at ease.” And as many have criticized “Oldboy” for its overindulgence in the violent and the perverse, “The Handmaiden,” at first glance, can be misunderstood as a film fueled by male fantasy, especially regarding its respective sex scenes and their relation to the theme of pornography in the film.
However, unlike the author of “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” Waters has embraced Park’s interpretation of the subversive sexuality explored in her novel and how it remains “faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires.” The film is about liberation. It explores sexual liberation, national liberation, and female liberation. It makes sense, then, that Sarah Waters would intend for the women both in her novel and in the film to use these “pornographic traditions” as a means to break free from the confines of male fantasy, manipulation, dominance, and the prison-like estate itself from within.
“The Handmaiden” was one of the best films of 2016 and possibly even of the decade. Being a foreign film, it was overlooked by many, and it truly is a shame that most would need to watch the film with subtitles. However, “The Handmaiden” is an unforgettable art house film despite cultural and language barriers as it speaks to universal ideas and emotions. If you’re not a film enthusiast or are predisposed against foreign cinema, “The Handmaiden” will change your mind. If you like plot twists, romance, Korean pop culture, great acting, brilliant artistry, heist movies, dark comedy, fashion, complex characters, or anything else I may have missed, you will love this movie. “The Handmaiden” is available for viewing on Amazon Prime and through the library system.
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