As a director, Park Chan-wook certainly has a taste for the theatrical. Not only did his 2003 film Oldboy appear inspired by the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, his latest film The Handmaiden, adapted from Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, also appears to draw from classical European theatre sources: from Shakespearian comedy to Italian commedia dell’Arte. But that sense of theatricality can also be found in the characters’ roles, mannerisms and blocking and through Chan-wook’s camerawork entices as we glide playfully through beautiful, artistic backdrops and sets. Most significant is the carefully composed dramatic structure that knows how and when to upend and surprise its audience, albeit without the same gut-punching revelations as Oldboy. For like an audience member being in the theatre, The Handmaiden is a film conscious of its own artifice. It is also aware of the erotic gaze that it arouses and seeks to critique. But while taking a strike at the exploitation of women evident within the pornography of its era, Chan-wook occasionally threatens to do exactly what he appears to be criticising. It is an awkward balancing act, that worries an otherwise intelligently-crafted, visually-sumptuous feature.
In the Korean colonial era, when Imperial Japan occupied the country in the early 20th Century, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the daughter of a legendary thief, is forced into the service of the wealthy, high-ranking aristocrat Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) by a vain conman known as ‘Count Fuijiwara’ (Ha Jung-woo). As part of the household, she is handmaiden to the Japanese heiress Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee)- a naive, virginal young woman who ‘the Count’ desires to marry for her inheritance and send his new wife to an asylum soon after. While their relationship begins almost parental, with Sook-hee becoming maternal to Hideko, a romantic attraction begins to grow between the two women. Alongside her formal duties, Sook-hee introduces Hideko to the joys of passionate intimacy, forgetting her arrangement with ‘the Count’ to persuade Hideko to marry him. A secret affair begins between servant and mistress, though neither can reveal their restrained, forbidden love when the marriage goes ahead. The loyalties within this triangle become twisted and uncertain and when the crucial moment comes, Sook-hee is forced to choose between her secret lover and the man who holds her family in his grasp. It all seems straightforward and conventional, right? But as my pencil rested to draw a line underneath this tale, as it seemed almost vaguely reminiscent of Shakespeare’s classic romance-comedies Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew, Chan-wook and writer Chung Seo-kyung turned everything on its head. Its a masterful sleight of hand that pulled the chair from under me completely.
What follows is more akin to Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with each segmented part of the three-act structure unveiling a new perspective on the preceding events. Each time, the characters’ intentions and allegiances are revealed and complicated, incidental details given new importance and the sex scenes grow more explicit. Often the film’s eroticism, either evoked through the sensuality of those sex scenes or the denigrating pornography readings and printed images, cross between a subtext of awakening and liberation to exploitation and deception. Mostly, Chan-wook strongly depicts this exploitation as serving venal male sexual gratification and societal aspirations. For both ‘the Count’ and Kouzuki exploit to satisfy their sexual desires and to acquire social standing in the new colonial order. The colonial setting is not treated as incidental either, for feelings of inadequacy, deference and subservience permeate the film’s political and sexual dimensions. Countering, Sook-he and Hideko’s growing relationship and intimacy is defiant and genuinely affectionate, their sexual experiences have none of the perversity of the men. Yet, it must be said the camera often lingers on and over the women’s sex together, their moans and noises are ratcheted up and their naked bodies are often framed as if they were on display. The uncertainty is encapsulated in The Handmaiden‘s final image, posing the question of whether the characters have reclaimed a sexual fantasy for their own or are they now enacting it unwittingly for the audience? This ambiguity does not help Chan-wook’s critique. It only confuses and potentially undermines it.
The theatrical flair and visual intricacy of the cinematography and production design are more assured however. Chan-wook creates an interwoven tapestry of fine art and real locations, with various elements within each scene revealing and concealing, as if on a theatre-stage. A scene where the two women slide open several doors, one after the other, to reveal a blue-hued vista before them is both clever and breathtaking. This conscious artistry, the artifice in and of the environments, is a subtle reminder that things are not always as they seem, that there is a performance taking place, but it doesn’t engender us to care much about the characters. Often they work as broadly drawn archetypes within a tightly-composed plot, reminding me of the stock players from the commedia dell’Arte (the scheming count, the hapless servant of two masters, the female object of desire) but they are struggle at a deeper emotional and psychological level. Unfortunately that other theatre tradition of ‘melodrama’ comes to the fore, such as the gloved, black-tongued sadistic uncle, an unsubtle Jin-woong and, occasionally, in histrionic moments between Tae-ri and Min-hee. While there appears to be affecting sensitivity and sensuality between the two, an early bath scene shows both the erotic and compassionate side of their relationship, they can be very over the top, sometimes amusingly so. More compelling is Min-hee’s unexpected and dramatic turnaround from unassuming ward to cold and calculating mastermind. Jung-woo also stands out as hilariously narcissistic, but then there’s his dead eyes and the occasional line delivered with a heavy weariness that adds some depth to his almost pantomime antagonist.
If you’re expecting another intricate, darkly-themed thriller from Chan-wook, you won’t be disappointed here. In its nearly three-hour running time (and I viewed the shorter theatrical cut) it is paced neatly and expertly, with another jolts and startles in the cinematography and narrative that you forget its significant length. It is just unfortunate that Chan-wook’s emphasis on style often seems to dictate and though as lavish, meticulous and sensual as the film is, too often its players become disappointingly instrumental.