Canon Entry - The Handmaiden (2016)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
There is a scene about halfway into Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden in which the two protagonists (Sookhee and Hideko) are waiting for Hideko’s suitor. The two actresses hold their positions while the film fast forwards and the lighting dims to signify time passing. It may not stand out to most casual viewers who would be justifiably distracted by other elements of this lush, overstuffed film. But the effect is one of the oldest tricks in cinema history, and could be seen as jarringly (or even childishly) obvious.
Tricks like these are just part of Park Chan-wook’s arsenal, and if you’re not onboard with such aesthetic flares, then you probably will have a difficult time with Park’s work in general. More timid directors shy from such flashy smoke and mirrors for good reason, but Park embraces them wholeheartedly. His unrestrained gusto is why he is still one of the most intensely cinematic directors working today. At his best, we are treated to truly thrilling and rich work such as Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. At his worst, we are subjected to music video visuals with little substance in Lady Vengeance or the tone-deaf portrayal of mental illness in I’m a Cyborg, but That’s Ok.
The Handmaiden is the culmination of his artistry. Inspired by Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, Handmaiden replaces Victorian England with Korea under Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century. Sookhee (Kim Taeri), a feisty hustler with street smarts to spare, is brought into a scheme concocted by a smooth con man (Ha Jung-Woo) who plans to steal the inheritance of a wealthy young woman, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), by making her fall in love with him with Sookhee’s help and steal her away from her uncle, a dealer in antique and rare books. This plot summary only scratches the surface of a film that is part Gothic horror, part Restoration comedy, part erotic thriller and, most of all, the basest of genre pictures.
Handmaiden revels in its circus tightrope act with immensely risky forays into tone and plot. If it teeters one way or the other, it doesn’t work, and oh it comes dangerously close to not working. The tone of the film is just north of being a screwball comedy or even a farce. Kim Taeri’s Sookhee could have been a bumbling fool with her brusque manner and inept attempts to pretend that she is more sophisticated than she really is. Ha Jung-woo’s Count Fujiwara could have been a comic lothario instead of a cunning charlatan. The much discussed sex scenes could have been shallow softcore porn, and the whole plot could have collapsed under the weight of its many machinations.
It is because of Park’s absolute control of the material that the film works. Park clearly let his production team go wild since every frame of this film is chock full of period detail. Yet on a second viewing of this film, I noticed that the editing was quick and modern with relatively brief shot lengths. Also, while it did take a second viewing to make sure I understood all the story’s twists and turns, the storytelling is remarkably clear and efficient, especially because Park likes to rely on striking yet purposeful visuals to drive his narrative rather than just verbal exposition. Park clearly knew that despite how tempting it was to show off all the magnificent work that he and his top-notch crew had done, he still had a story to tell and that it would collapse under its own weight if not told in a judicious manner. This control is perhaps why the film does not feel like its 145 minute runtime.
That the actors are not subsumed by the sumptuous nature of the production is truly a marvel. Ha Jung-Woo as the slimy count has a decorum that barely suppresses the rank greed and materialism of his character. Cho Jin-Woong is the opposite as a creature of naked desire and lust that no amount of high class pretensions can hide. But the film belongs to both Kim Minhee (Hideko) and Kim Taeri (Sookhee) who give fiercely brave performances - Taeri playing earthy and brusque and Minhee playing sophisticated and coy. It is a testament to their commitment to their craft and Park’s mercifully non-leery guidance that they were able to execute the graphic love scenes so well. People have predictably taken issue with the sexual content of the film - that it was nothing but gratuitous softcore porn meant for titillation. I think Sarah Waters herself justified it best though in a Guardian interview when she said that the women are “appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of expressing their desires.”
Waters also mentioned that Park told her that he saw the relationship between Taeri and Hideko as being a rebuke of Japanese colonialism. Their love was not just a sexual transgression in the context of this time. Basically, if people in the film had known about the relationship, they would have been just as horrified that it was between a Japanese noblewoman and a common Korean servant as they would have been that it was between two women. In my reading about this film, I noticed that few Western reviewers had any real conception of how important the setting is to this story, which I find strange because Park does not dance around the issue at all. The most villainous characters are the ones who long to be the most Japanese. The more sympathetic characters are more “Korean.” During this time, Korea was inundated with Western culture, all thanks to the Japanese, who were great admirers of it, and it is seen as both an overbearing and insidious presence in this film. It is Park’s keen eye that elevates this film from base genre picture to a sharp critique of Western patriarchy as channeled by the Japanese, the effects of which are felt in Korea even today.
This film came out in 2016, which has nothing to do with the film proper, but I felt I had to menton this. 2016 was a contentious year in many ways, and this contentiousness even extended to the films that came out that year. For most people it was all about La La Land vs. Moonlight and that famous flub at the Oscars. (Actually, it was all about La La Land, since no one bothered to go see Moonlight, and I am still stunned (yet delighted) that that film made its way into the public consciousness.) However, all the most critically acclaimed American films dimmed in comparison to The Handmaiden for me. If the Oscars weren’t so America-centric, the film could have won best actress (a contest of Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson proportions), best supporting actor, best director, best editing, best adapted screenplay, best costumes, best makeup, best production design, best music, etc. I compare it to 1967, which saw a sea change in American cinema with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, but on the world scene, Melville’s Le Samourai, Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, Tati’s Playtime and Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort were also released, and any one of these films made the best of American cinema seem like child’s play. I do not think it is an overstatement when I say that The Handmaiden left so much of American cinema in the dust.