When reading other critics reviews of ‘The Handmaiden’, I was surprised to see how some thought the erotic scenes involving the two lead actresses were sexist. Lena Wilson (The Radical Notion) wrote ‘I think it’s time for non-lesbian/bi female creators to stop interpreting lesbian texts however they please’, calling it ‘uniquely troublesome’. I believe that she, along with all others, misunderstand the role eroticism plays in the film.
At the very beginning, men are very much portrayed as dominant. Strong characters who would not hesitate in using violence to keep their wives or daughters in line. The women, in keeping with the time period, are obedient, doing only what is expected of them. Therefore the sexual scenes involving Lady Hideko and her handmaiden follow the same rules. They succumb to their desires, too weak to control themselves.
But over the course of the whirlwind 167 minute runtime the roles change drastically. Behind man’s powerful facade lies fatal single mindedness. For some this is money, for others it is a sexual desire so deep-rooted it becomes perverse, shown most prominently during Lady Hideko’s readings. As this desire starts to unravel their rule, women rise to take over with this change encompassing the sex scenes too. Vulnerability is now replaced with righteousness.
It is important to note that there is not one scene that involved the naked body of a male (although there are a few male bodily organs in Uncle Kouzuki’s basement). Their lustful pursuit ultimately causes their downfall, becoming blinded to what occurs around them. In short, the men in ‘The Handmaiden’ are too weak to be seen in their purest form. Nudity is not cheap or meaningless here, quite the opposite.
This is but one example of something the film truly excels at, showing the same scene in dramatically different ways. Director and cowriter Park Chan-wook achieves this commandingly through the use of a non-linear storyline and by alternating the perspective between each of the major characters. In recent years this style of storytelling in film has become few and far between with Memento (2000) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) the only notable examples in the 21st century.
Perhaps seen as an unnecessary risk by filmmakers and producers, it uses the patience of the audience to bring multiple stories together, as well as giving us the ability to emphasise with each character, hero or villain. When implanted well, it can result in some of the greatest films of all time, such as ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001) and ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994). Can ‘The Handmaiden’ hold a candle to those? I absolutely believe so.
The majority of the film takes place within Uncle Kouzuki’s mansion and its grounds. Cinematographer and long-time collaborator Chung Chung-Hoon does an incredible job at bringing the setting to life with every frame looking visually stunning. Similarly as beautiful were the three lead actors/actresses Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri and Ha Jung-woo, who are constantly adorned in elegant and luxurious clothing. The riches of the Japanese Kouzuki is often juxtaposed with the poorness of the Koreans, whose country his is occupying. All three, along with the various supporting characters, give phenomenal performances, with no single person outshining the rest.
Park once again turned to another collaborator Jo Yeong-wook for the soundtrack, having worked together on such films as ‘Oldboy’ (2003) and ‘Thirst’ (2009). Something I found particularly interesting about this fantastic soundtrack is that the main theme, contained in the track ‘My Tamako, My Sookee’, is very reminiscent of the main theme to the BBC television show ‘Downton Abbey’, which also shares the same deep-rooted class divisions. The original source material for ‘The Handmaiden’, Sarah Waters’ ‘Fingersmith’ is also set in historic England, however several decades prior in the Victorian era. Despite its often fiery nature, the orchestral backing never feels overpowering, instead lifting the on-screen action to reach more emotionally powerful heights.
‘The Handmaiden’ is a sensational psychological thriller, without a doubt one of the the best films of the year if not decade. Director Park Chan-wook has created a masterpiece, one that will captivate you from start to finish, leaving you breathless when it finally reaches its climax. There are many plot twists throughout that no viewer could successfully predict the ending after the opening 30 minutes and as a result it demands not just to be seen, but to be watched again and again.