TW: Mention of sexual abuse
Park Chan-Wook’s rework of Sarah Walters’ celebrated novel Fingersmith feels a lot like rope play: kinky, knotty and deliberately delayed gratification, rolling in at just under three hours long. In co-writers Chan-Wook and Seo-Kyungs’ deft and cunning hands, Waters’ queer, corset-ripping period drama is relocated to Japanese-occupied ‘30s Korea, the class and gender tensions of the Victorian original filtered through a colonial lens. From across this divide, two female leads – played with deep respective finesse by Kim Tae-r and Kim Min-hee – attempt to cross and double-cross each other, only to fall in lust along the way.
Tae-ri plays Sook-hee, a Korean pickpocket recruited by Ha Jung-woo’s caddish Korean conman. He promises Sook-hee, that together they’ll masquerade as a handmaiden, Tamako, and suitor, Japanese-born Count Fujiwara, in order to swindle a pale, neurotic and isolated Japanese heiress – Min-hee’s haunting Lady Hideko – out of her fortune. The plan is to woo, elope with and promptly institutionalise Hideko, using Tamako as wing woman – though as we discover, there’s more to this gambit than Sook-hee realises.
To close in on his prey, Fujiwara must first ingratiate himself with Hideko’s abusive, perverted and equally duplicitous uncle, Cho jin-woong’s Kouzuki. Like Fujiwara, Kouziki is also a duplicitious social climber: a Korean farmhand who has married his way into the gentry, where he now passing himself off as Japanese-born. And like Fujiwara, he also has designs on Hideko’s inheritance, In a house full of monsters – from the ‘pet’ in the basement to the Danvers-like housekeeper, Sasaki – this depraved patriarch is king, ruling over Hideko with a brutal, sinister hand. But unknown to him, there’s a rebellion fomenting: Hideko, we later discover, is not the naïve, defenceless aristocrat Tamako has fallen for, but rather a desperate and calculating survivor of abuse, nurturing her own secret passions and designs.
On its surface, The Handmaiden is an intoxicating study of duality and code-switching, a theatre played with the ropes that rig society to elevate the few and subjugate the many. It’s a meditation on power and desire, porn and performance. But more than this: its a brilliantly dark ode to women’s desire and autonomy: a subject that remains as pressing today as it was a century ago.
The film, like the novel, is told in three parts from three different vantage points, the same scenarios accumulating new meanings with each retelling. The repetition feels compulsive, fetishistic in the same way Kouzuki lusts for books and Tamako obsessives over feminine finery – fine jewels; laced lingerie; scented baths and the sweet-sour kisses of her mistress. Together, these individual fixations interconnect to form a subject Chan-Wook has returned to again and again, in the Vengeance Trilogy and 2013’s Stoker: the complicated matrix of family and home, with its closed network of roles and scripts and intergenerational dynamics.
Just like its inhabitants, Hideko’s home is a thing caught in flux, a thing that wants to bridge worlds – part English country pile, part Japanese mansion. Under Kouzuki’s stewardship, it’s a Japanese puzzle box, all hidden wings and spy holes, a space where – in true Chan-Wook style – the erotic and obscene converge. In less accomplished hands, The Handmaiden might have been turgid, ridiculous even. But Chan-Wook and Chung are artful puppet masters, turning the drama up to asphyxiating levels only to puncture its most pivotal moments – the sex scenes; a suicide attempt; covert liaisons – with disarming pinpricks of sweet, weird and devilish humour.
Witness the glorious contempt Hideko shows Fujiwara during the kimono-tying post-matrimony scene, preferring a knife handle to her new husband’s touch; marvel at Tamako’s sword-wielding, snake-smashing Furie during the glorious destruction of Kouziki’s library of filth. When Fujiwara despairs at his female conspirator’s apparently incomprehensible emotions, the punch line isn’t women but men, and their cocksure myopia.
These are potent laughs, played for feminist kicks. In Hideko, the frigid, quasi-ghost girl of gothic 19th century sensation novels is neither the mad women in the attic nor the asylum angel, but rather the frighteningly rational survivor in the basement, tricking her way to liberation one performance at a time. If Sook-hee is endearingly gauche as Tamako, Min-lee’s Hideko is a paragon of elegant guile, skillfully switching between pale ingénue, painted geisha and drag-sporting strategist. We marvel at her slyness, not as proof of female duplicity but of our hard-won multiplicity – an essential survival skill in a world that demands performance from us in every sphere.
Chan-Wool has been refreshingly frank regarding his feminist hopes for this girls-against-the-patriarchy opus, and his attempts at fostering a supportive environment for his female leads. But The Handmaiden‘s sex scenes have divided critics since it toured the film festival circuit last year. Like The Duke of Burgundy and Blue Is The Warmest Colour before it this is, after all, another graphic lesbian love story mediated through a straight male director’s gaze. When asked if she thought the sex scenes reproduced tired, cishet fantasies of girl-on-girl action, Waters offered a considered counterpoint:
“Fingersmith was about finding space for women to be with each other away from prying eyes. Though ironically the film is a story told by a man, it’s still very faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires.”
For the most part I am inclined to agree. The love scenes feel intentionally staged, designed to turn us on only to trip us up with guffaws and moues minutes later, via histrionics (“I can die happy knowing I got to go down on you!”), uncomfortably extended facial close-ups (see the tribbing scene), and buzz-killing tongue-action. Chan-Wook will give us our kicks, but only ironically and reflexively: at one remove.
For the most part, this mischievous attempt at reconciling (male) voyeurism with feminist film-making is effective. The closing scene is the exception, unfolding without dialogue and comedy in a long, sustained and graphic shot that zooms in on the giggling lovers’ bodies before panning off to the night sky, where a bright full moon shines down on a silvery, gentle ocean – a beautiful, if clichéd, tapestry of feminine symbols. There’s a frustrating neatness to this scene’s unexpected sex act, a benevolent attempt to punctate Hideko’s story by transforming childhood trauma into adult pleasure. Are things ever that simple, or transformative? I’m not so sure.
The perfect symmetry of the lovers in congress during the final scene is also troubling, reaching for radical sameness but landing closer to mainstream porno homogeny. Again, Waters offers a thoughtful interpretation, via Chan-Wook:
“They are like mirrors of each other, which I’ve found rather troubling in the past because it blacks out the difference, but when I spoke to Park he said he was bringing the Japanese mistress and the Korean sewing girl together on an equal level. The novel is about class rather than gender: people passing themselves off as something they’re not. The film is more about colonialism: that very fraught relationship between Korea and Japan.”
It’s a reasonable but ultimately unconvincing rationale. In a film so rich with social tensions – from class and gender to sexuality and race – nothing here feels pure or without motive, including the sex. Chan-Wook attempts to reconcile this in the final scene, to vanish these anxieties with a stylised symmetry that, paradoxically, only betrays his own need for order, his own benevolent but naive vision of queer female love as some kind of classless utopia. The truth, as BDSM lesbian activists have told us for decades, is that our private roles are just as messy, complicated and imperfect as our public selves, and that there can be great joy and deep healing in queering those constructs: mistress and maid, top and bottom, switch and switch.
Happily, the unnatural quality of this scene only adds to the vaguely magical power of the lovers’ triumph, a happy-ending that’s all the more so given death’s constant proximity – from the vial of poison Hideko carries as protection against her uncle’s basement, to the eerie family heirloom she keeps lovingly stowed away in a hat box. Death may follow the couple – doesn’t it always, when queer women are on screen? – but only to unite them, unmasked under the cherry blossom tree during a dark night of the soul. It’s the men that death takes, in pleasingly brutal fashion. Hideko and Tamako survive, together – a just and sapid victory.