[This review will spoil the entirety of the film. The book is fourteen years old, though.]
Sook-Hee is a Korean handmaiden to a Japanese heiress. Sook-Hee is a thief who aims to lock an heiress in an asylum to steal her fortune. Sook-Hee is the heiress’ lover. Lady Hideko is a blushing heiress, set to marry her adoptive uncle. Lady Hideko is known for her live readings of high-class pornography. Lady Hideko is an unwitting victim to a thief. Lady Hideko would put her lover in an asylum. They hide themselves from each other and from the audience.
I warned of spoilers, but spoilers couldn’t spoil this film. The enemy of most twisting narratives is foreknowledge. If the audience knows every twist, the string unknots, and all that’s left are dead shocks. Not so here. Tension in The Handmaiden comes from dramatic irony, the audience knowing more than the characters. As the audience learns each characters’ secrets, old scenes acquire new subtext. On first viewing, the audience knows Sook-Hee is fattening a sheltered heiress for the slaughter; on second viewing, the audience knows Hideko plays the ingénue to fatten Sook-Hee. Far from spoiling the film, foreknowledge increases the dramatic irony, thus the tension.
Where Water’s novel was a psychological adventure story, Park Chan-Wook’s film is a psychological thriller. To compress the essence of Water’s five-hundred page novel into 145 minutes, Chan-Wook confines most of the film to one locale. Barring the setting change from Victorian London to 1930s Korea, Chan-Wook remains faithful for the first two sections of the novel. Both the film and the novel branch out geographically in their final thirds, but Chan-Wook does not exploit this as much as Water’s. The extra geography allowed Water’s to write a Dickensian adventure, with physical thrills to supplement the psychological ones. Chan-Wook doubles-down on the characters’ double-masked interactions.
There’s always a bit of camp to the neo-Victorian; even serious melodrama winks with pastiche. Fingersmith is no exception, and neither is this Victorian-adjacent adaptation. Chan-Wook’s style occupies the superposition of serious and silly. His camp has emotional depth. There’s a flashback in which Hideko’s uncle threatens to institutionalise her in an asylum if she misbehaves; he, like a school master waving his cane, tells her how the doctors reduce their patients to dogs. Her aunt, who has heard this all before, fidgets, squirms, and finally flees for the exit. Iron-bars drop to block the way. The aunt’s dignified walk back to her seat, as though nothing had happened, is only the tragicomic climax of the scene. The tone of the scene proper fosters a discomfort that threatens, depending on the scene’s climax, to break out in either gasps or laughter. The best camp and melodrama balances between too much and just enough. The Dickensian villainy of the uncle threatens to turn the scene into a cartoon, yet his villainy, and his ultimatum, is real to Hideko and her aunt. These are characters the audience believes, characters who personalise the excesses of the situation.
The excesses do not stop there; nor are they all unflawed. The film examines the male gaze, the objectification of women by the sexual drives of men. Hideko, like her aunt before her, performs dramatic readings of high-class pornography for her uncle and his fellow perverts. Since childhood her uncle schooled her to this end, to the most evocative enunciation of ‘manko’. Even as the men fantasise about her whipping them (hypothetically a transfer of power) it is nonetheless their fantasy, and she is their fantasy’s object. As an audience member one can’t help but squirm with the gentlemen. But while they squirm from arousal, we, watchers of a prestige erotic thriller, squirm at identification with these gentlemen perverts. Freedom in The Handmaiden is thus escape from male sexual oppression. Where better to escape than into a lesbian union between our heroines. Neither objectifies the other, both love each other, and only from that love comes sex.
Park Chan-Wook does not recoil from sex scenes, though I wish he would. They muddy the film’s themes to no good end. Chan-Wook does not avoid the lesbian sex – which is fine – except that he fails to avoid the male gaze. The scenes are protracted, lurid affairs, not so much erotic as soft-core. The lovers are objects to his male sexuality. It’s not just that Chan-Wook is having his cake and eating it too. No, by villainising the gentlemen perverts, and making the audience complicit in their lasciviousness, Chan-Wook has shared a cake with us, then, when we’ve eaten it all, demands we give it all back. Maybe there’s a deeper meaning here. Have our heroines escaped one kind of male objectification, but, living in a patriarchal society, they are forever trapped in another? Is the ending sex scene, which seems triumphant, in fact a crypto-unhappy ending, foreshadowing troubles ahead? Well, if so, the film does not earn these thematic twists. It would be meta-commentary of a lazy sort, more an excuse than a justification for his male gaze.
Although some of the themes are muddled and/or misguided, they do not invalidate the whole (except if long sex scenes put you off). The Handmaiden is a blackly funny suspense story. Should it come out near you, give it a watch.