WARNING: The following blog post, like the film itself deals with some very frank and explicit mature themes, sexual and non-sexual and please be noted of that before reading on.
There’s a saying about buses. You wait and wait for the bus which never arrives, and then suddenly two or three or all of them come at once. It’s not Shakespeare, but it constantly resurfaces in my mind. While I try to look at every film on its own terms, I find it humourous than in my life, I should have experienced two films concerned with lesbianism, BDSM themes, and the undercutting of audience expectations in such a short space of time, the first being The Duke Of Burgundy (2014, Dir. Peter Strickland) and now The Handmaiden (2017, Dir. Park Chan-Wook). Of course they’re not two sides of the same coin, but I find the parallel too relevant to pass up.
The Handmaiden is lots of things, most of them shrouded in shadows until they’re suddenly brought out into the light. Primarily, it’s an adaptation of the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Taken from its original setting in Victoria era England, it’s replanted in 1930’s colonial Korea under Japanese rule. It gains much from this, allowing the director to fuse his own culture into the film’s DNA, melding quite literally its English heritage and its Asiatic influence into every part of the film. Most prominently in the mansion which the characters inhabit for half of the film, as the English style manor, (which echoes the Manderley estate found in Rebecca (1940, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)) literally has a Japanese inspired wing attached to its side. This, alongside with far more subtle and delicate introductions, shows how impressively a story can be transported across the artistic and cultural boundaries we might unconsciously draw when placing a work into a particular time, a particular history.
One thing The Handmaiden might be is not necessarily timeless, but certainly in that place where it becomes a lot harder to keep track of. It’s world is isolated, enclosed in itself. You could imagine months, years passing in its languid flow and barely noticing. It’s characters are so interested in each other, that everything else falls away beyond their own commitments and desires to each other, or against each other. It’s world is one of suffocating isolated beauty and cruelty in equal measures, like an alluring but poisonous flower.
Another thing The Handmaiden might be is profoundly intelligent, for better and for worse. I find it wryly amusing that in a blog whose name literally means truth, it should be so concerned with a film which is based on so many levels of intimate deception. But the genuine pleasure of watching (more on that later) the film is mainly involved in its careful intricate layers being revealed to you, as your expectations are constantly conned, the nature of the hustle like playing cards with someone using a stacked deck. You may feel cheated at times, furious you have been taken in so completely, but its a tribute to the film’s quiet entrancing power.
One thing The Handmaiden could be is incredibly sensitive, both in its eroticism and its handling of its themes. It’s world is muted and dreamy, and its’ two main inhabitants, the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and the Handmaiden Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) find that fragile blooming of love in a nest of vipers, which Park Chan-Wook displays most intensely in moments small and large. In small moments, a delicate tooth filing while the Lady bathes (much weirder in text form than in the imagery) and in large moments, in intense erotically charged sex scenes. The scenes probably will provoke strong analysis’s from those who love to politicise film and its makers, but I believe you’ll be hard pressed to discover more genuine and more sensitively crafted scenes of intimacy in film that are this uncovered and open. Furthermore while they’re arguably crafted in a voyeuristic way for the camera, this is integral to that key aspect of cinema, of watching without being seen, all of us Peeping Tom’s and voyeuristically taking part in their relationship, just as the men surrounding them try to do.
The thing The Handmaiden could be about is those power dynamics which take place in those hidden secret realms of men and women, those dark corners where perversions and desires grow in our hearts, which can turn them black and twist and distort those around us to places we don’t even let ourselves imagine, much less speak out loud to each other. It’s opulence, its exquisite surroundings, its beautiful landscapes and obsessively fetishised clothing hide such ugliness underneath, an ugliness which lies in the revelry of pain and the inflicting of it, on themselves or others. Those power dynamics of darkness twist round these characters, and its only through outmaneuvering the black hearts, not by appealing to their better nature that our main protagonists can allow themselves the freedom and the ability to allow something light to grow from their darkness. It’s power dynamics feel horribly real because good doesn’t triumph through its own virtue, it triumphs because it’s guarded, kept secret, kept hidden while its murderers are pitted against each other.
I can’t be completely sure about anything in The Handmaiden, it would be missing the point of the film. What I can say is Park Chan-Wook’s work is elaborately and intricately well crafted, it’s subject matter both emotionally and intellectually strong and twisting and at each level its style is unique and entrancing, even if it might not be to everyone’s taste. There’s a lot of truth in that, even if I can’t be 100% sure of it.
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