Directed by Park Chan-wook
Opens October 21
The first time Lady Hideko sleeps with her servant Sook-hee in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, it’s the young maid who appears to be steering the ship. Under the guise of preparing her virginal mistress for her wedding night, Sook-hee coats her mouth with the sugary stick of a lollipop and slowly makes her way from Hideko’s demurely parted lips to her eagerly parted legs. The ecstatic cries that follow are as cathartic for the viewer as they are for the characters: Park packs a great deal of cinematic foreplay into the first act, often framing the women within a few intimate inches of each other as warm baths are drawn, boned bodices laced and unlaced, and innumerable buttons fastened and unfastened—all with bated breath. But like any good sex scene, more is revealed here than just skin; Hideko’s eager—even seasoned—surrender to pleasure suggests she might have more agency than we’ve given her credit for.
Then again, no one is quite who they seem in this deliciously lavish period piece. Like most of Park’s films, the fine art of erotic manipulation is gleefully on display in The Handmaiden—as are the usual host of patriarchal perversities and fetishes—but the film has an affecting emotional core that signals a welcome new direction in Park’s work: one that eschews the shock value he’s become famous for with films like Oldboy and Lady Vengeance in favor of a slightly more delicate approach to character.
Transposing Sarah Waters’s Victorian-set novel Fingersmith to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule, The Handmaiden tells its story of desire and deceit in three chapters from the perspective of three different characters: Sook-hee (played flawlessly by newcomer Kim Tae-ri), a petty thief hired to pose as Hideko’s servile maid; the man who hires her, Count Fujiwara (veteran Ha Jung-woo), who is not really a count at all, but a swindler who intends to seduce Hideko and cheat her out of her inheritance; and finally the heiress in question, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee, Right Now, Wrong Then), the fate of whose body and fortune both seem to lie in the hands of others. The classic bait-and-switch is quickly complicated by lust (and eventually love), however, as Sook-hee finds herself falling for the very woman she was supposed to dupe.
“Everyone is performing their roles so damn well,” Sook-hee mutters in disgust when she spots the count laying on the phony charm. So much of the film’s carefully crafted suspense hinges on the act of watching and being watched; as scenes are repeated from various vantage points—a forested perch, a shadowy peephole—major plot twists are exposed along the way. This game of glances is embedded directly into Park’s superior visual style. Using a careful combination of swift, decisive pans and painterly tableaux, the director gradually unmasks the duplicitous motivations of his characters, while also showing off the magnificent period trappings of the set.
Hideko’s mansion boasts a beguiling mix of high Victorian and traditional Japanese décor and architecture, but it’s deep in the gothic basement chambers that the most Park-esque elements emerge. It’s here, in a library packed with rare erotica and guarded by a cobra, that Hideko’s depraved uncle spends most of his time. Tongue black with ink and clearly harboring a boner for his beautiful niece, he keeps Hideko to a strict schedule of daily “reading lessons.” When we finally see things from her point of view, it’s revealed that she’s made to regularly recite passages from her uncle’s collection before an audience of well-heeled men, even acting out fetishes on a life-sized wooden doll.
There’s much speculation throughout the film surrounding Hideko’s sexuality: Is she frigid, or is she so sublimely sensual that she’s otherworldly? In one especially apt example, the count and Hideko’s uncle mourn their inability to obtain her by wondering aloud about what she must feel like when aroused. Meanwhile, a gargantuan, slimy octopus somewhat comically sloshes around in a tank behind them, its tentacles spilling over the edges of the glass.
While some viewers might see the invertebrate as a nod to a now-infamous scene in Oldboy, considered against the backdrop of classic Japanese erotica, it’s easy to draw a connection to “The Dream of a Fisherman’s Wife,” a well-known shunga drawing in which a woman is sexually devoured by a giant octopus. If the image doesn’t immediately spring to mind, readers might recall that it hangs in the office of Mad Men’s Bert Cooper before Peggy reclaims it in the final season. “Who is the man who imagined her ecstasy?” Cooper wonders aloud with great reverence.
It’s of course the wrong question to ask: the image is not about the man who created the drawing at all, but rather, his glaring absence from this particular moment of female pleasure. Both the count and Hideko’s uncle’s ultimately fail to possess her because they presume to know her thoughts and desires better than she does. The quiet power (and frankly, the sheer fun) of The Handmaiden is just how far the film is willing to go to prove them wrong.