by Jason Suzuki
In 2013 three of South Korea's most popular exports, who also all happened to be master filmmakers even more successful in their home country, made their English language debuts. It was a weird bit of timing and each filmmaker despite the new language, and in the case of two of them new production location, was able to make films that fit cleanly within their career trajectories. They were Kim Jee-woon (The Last Stand), Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer), and Park Chan-wook (Stoker). According to interviews the three of them joke who had the worst experience and this shows in their latest films; Kim and Park have returned to Korea and Bong moved to a production/distribution company that wasn't run by a Weinstein. The Handmaiden is most certainly a film by Park Chan-wook, stylish and playful, and it has the pleasant surprise of not erasing his most stylish family-drama Stoker but builds upon it.
Also based on the work of a foreign author (Oldboy, Thirst), Park and frequent collaborator Jung Seo-Kyung adapt Sarah Waters' bestseller The Fingersmith and transport it to Japan-occupied Korea. A young pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) is hired by a con artist (Ha Jung-woo) to swindle a noble lady (Kim Min-hee) out of her perverted uncle's (Cho Jing-woong) fortune. In the most reductive of descriptions: it is To Catch a Thief as done in the style of shunga with a hint of ero-guro.
Lady Hideko, or the noble lady as previously mentioned, is a woman who has never seen the outside world. She has been raised within the confines of her uncle's lavish estate, training to be a reader of his erotic literature, the collection of which is his obsession. Her uncle having an affinity for Western and Japanese style architecture, clothing, and erotica, his home and all within it are affected. Hence the name Hideko. Sook-hee, the pickpocket girl, gets a job as the noble lady's maid with the goal to influence her to fall in love the Count. Who is really the con-man disguised as a counterfeiter, to win the audience of the uncle, who convinced her to take on the job. From here the pickpocket begins to develop deeper physical feelings for Lady Hideko despite the allure of her inheritance.
Again, as with Stoker, we have a strong focus on the internal. Characters who have remained in the same place for extended periods of time increase their vigor for the outside world. Within them are bursts of excitement and hurriedness, complimented by Jo Yeong-wook's sweeping score and Jung Jung-Hoon's just as sweeping visuals. The noble lady and the pickpocket have been trapped within their own worlds and within each other see opportunities for escape. It's the same basis for which the romance in Thirst was founded upon yet here the question between physical and internal is heightened. On a more superficial note, what is taboo, specifically incest, turns up again as with Oldboy and Stoker.
The film has a three act structure in the Rashomon sense, meaning at a certain point we definitively reset the story. The quick tangents of memory and reveals are not quite what happens here. We see all of the same events but now from a different perspective which only occasionally adds a new perspective to the proceedings. When switching over to the noble lady's point of view what we get are continuations of scenes rather than entirely different ones. Before and afters along with the added perspective of an additional line of sight are the heights with which this structure goes to inform. The level of detail where every scene already sat through must be done so again feels tedious every now and then but the attention to detail is what allows it to remain engrossing.
This manner of doling out information to the audience is at its most divisive at a crucial "betrayal." It is a deception that I am in the middle on. For one, the film is a much more simple love story than one would initially assume. And while the cons and the double crosses may be entertaining on the surface, it's what is within the leads that Park is more concerned with which begs the question why keep up the theatrics for so long with the audience? It is entirely possible we are allowed witness to characters lying to themselves despite what we may see or hear them do suggests. The flatness of the rug pull suggests other intentions. It's admirable yet frustrating.
The element of erotic literature and artwork invites interesting comparisons between the story of the pickpocket and the noble lady to those found in the tales the noble lady must read to her uncle and an audience of other men. This is a story incorporating the perspectives of men and women, mostly women, from a male director, adapted by a man and a woman from a novel from a woman. When the film gets graphic it does so naturally, keeping certain bits out of frame. For an example of the opposite see the gym shower scene of Slumber Party Massacre in which its parody of the male oriented entertainments is foregrounded. When the film does become sexually explicit it does so in a manner similar to the imagery of the ukiyo-e the uncle collects, or the Marquis de Sade for a Western example. Is this because this is all the characters know of intimacy or does Park want the film to also work as a reversal of these stories? I lean towards the latter as the film does not shame the women for their kinks.
The Handmaiden while not necessarily Park at his most indulgent despite what the running time may tell you, is still very entertaining with a grandiose scope applied to a very modest and simple story. He could still be probing deeper but unlike his contemporary Kim Jee-woon, his increased stylization is an attempt to get to deeper urges and feelings from his characters. This is his latest attempt at that balance and won't be his last.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.