An adaptation of Sarah Waters’ acclaimed Victorian-era erotic thriller Fingersmith, The Handmaiden transposes the action to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Stoker), who also worked on the adapted screenplay, this is a big step up for a director mostly known before for his highly stylised scenes of ultraviolence. Like far too many talented directors, Chan-wook’s technical audacity has been squandered away on an obsession with gratuitous gore and cold, empty characterisations that, filmed in the right lighting, are perceived as Art by easily duped critics. He has shown more sympathy for the mechanics of vengeance than, say, real people, which I’ve always found disconcerting.
Which makes The Handmaiden all the more of a surprise. It’s not just beautifully photographed, evocatively scored, and sumptuously designed (in sets, lighting, colour, make-up and all other departments). It’s not just unusually gripping and tense from beginning to end, like no other film I’ve seen this year. It’s also a major, accomplished piece of humane filmmaking. Thrillingly driven by a myriad of emotions, of which vengeance is thankfully but a minor one, the characters here live and breathe in three dimensions, they have complex and contradictory webs of desire, and they act in consistently surprising ways. It’s Chan-wook’s first novel-on-film, as opposed to a shop-of-horrors designed expressly to shock.
He gets some great performances from the leads. Kim Tae-ri flitters between hysteria and calm as Sook-hee, a pickpocket hired by the con artist Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to act as handmaiden to Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and convince her to marry him. Hideko is a fabulously wealthy orphan, and it’s the fortune rather than the woman that the Count is after. So the pre-hatched plan is to send Hideko off to a mental asylum shortly after they marry and then split the stolen dowry with Sook-hee. But human foibles get in the way. Hideko starts to fall in love with Sook-hee, not the Count, which complicates the double-crossing at play. And Sook-hee in turn falls for Hideko. Or does she…?
As The Handmaiden progresses we are shown the same crucial scenes of wooing and lovemaking from the perspective of different characters, and it has the disorientating (but thrilling) effect that our assumptions concerning who is ‘performing’ in the romantic and sexual liaisons of the three main characters are continually readjusted. Love and sex are two areas in life where the strong-willed can be reduced to weakness, and as such they are powerful tools to be used in manipulating others. As the plot twists and turns, we begin to question whether the purity of love or sex can ever exist at all, or whether there will always be an element of performance to them. The pivotal sex scene between Sook-hee and Hideko, for example, starts with them pretending to be man and wife on their wedding night, so are we to believe that the grunts and groans which follow are genuine, or are they all just a part of the scene’s role-playing? Is Sook-hee preparing Hideko for her first night with the Count, or is she enacting her own desires upon this beautiful woman beneath her? Can there ever be a complete connection between lust and love, we wonder?
The film bravely poses an answer to all of these questions in its final scene, which of course I won’t dare to spoil. But look out for it, and consider its meaning very carefully. I believe the ending is the most audacious and inspiring thing that Chan-wook has yet committed to film, and even if it comes directly from Sarah Waters’ book, the boldness required to bring it to life onscreen is remarkable.
Still, the film is not perfect: Chan-wook can’t resist a lengthy scene of grizzly torture, which clearly gives him as much of a hard-on as the sex scenes, what with its lavish close-ups of mutilation. I’ve heard nary a word about this particular scene in the press’s lengthy discussions on the film’s morality, a dispiriting example of how violence is perceived as more ‘normal’ in the world of film than sex. People will sit quietly through scenes of the most excessive bloodletting and be unperturbed, yet lose their shit when they see two naked women getting it on.
Indeed, there has been some criticism that the explicit scenes of lesbian lovemaking are an uncomfortable example of male wish-fulfillment fantasy rather than an ode to female liberation, because they’re filmed by a guy director. To these accusations I would reply that not only were these scenes far more explicit in the original novel, Fingersmith, but also that the author herself gave this film her seal of approval, demonstrating that Chan-wook has stayed close to the spirit of his source material rather than indulging in his own masturbatory fantasies (though of course he could be doing both, at least he’s not doing the latter in any unjustifiably excessive way).
Taken overall the film is a resplendent celebration of female sexuality, and this couldn’t be clearer. Even in this day and age, that’s an astonishingly rare thing to find in cinema (it’s more frequent in pop music, one of the main reasons I’ve become attracted to that form above film in recent years). Most art films are so eager to prove their smarts and tell us something downbeat about humanity that they forget the main reason why we have sex: because it’s fun. I recently watched Raw, a horror film that is being applauded on the arthouse circuit for linking sexual awakening to cannibalism, without anyone acknowledging how deeply, deeply silly that concept is even on a surface level – cannibalism is an aberration in human nature, whereas sex is a universal part of it, so equating them doesn’t make much sense at all.
Stick to The Handmaiden, which is a film about fucking that’s the real deal: sex as pleasure, as performance, sometimes as manipulation, but most importantly, when it’s good, as love.