starring Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Moon So-ri
screenplay by Chung Seo-Kyung, Park Chan-wook, based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
directed by Park Chan-wook
by Walter Chaw I love Stoker, Korean master Park Chan-wook's updating of Shadow of a Doubt that centres on "young Charlie's" sexual awakening and all the perverse tensions attending that moment in a brittle upper-middle-class Nashville. Married to the swooning, hypnotic camerawork that has been the hallmark of Park's collaboration with DP Chung Chung since Oldboy, it has about it the perversity of a Victorian chamber drama squeezed through the filter of a very Korean take on class and sex--attitudes partly shaped by living in the shadow of one of the two or three most unstable regimes in the world. Stoker is a haunted-house movie without ghosts; a vampire movie without vampires. Its hero is a young woman who dons the raiment of the patriarchy at the end, lets blood on a field of flowers (one of a series of literal and metaphorical deflowerings), and stalks into the world fully-formed and dangerous. Park is best known for his "Vengeance Trilogy," of course, but it's the last film of that cycle, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, that finds itself faced with the kind of moral dilemma that has marked Park's work since. It's arguable that before it, Park was an exploitation filmmaker. A conversant, brilliant exploitation filmmaker, but an exploitation filmmaker just the same. Lady Vengeance, however, deals with the ethics of violence and the toll of retribution on the avengers. It's smart as hell, beautiful to look at, nigh unwatchable. I mean that as praise, for it should be.
Park's new film, The Handmaiden, is an adaptation of Sarah Waters's Fingersmith that relocates its Victorian crime drama to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, unfolding in a sprawling mansion that is half-English/half-Japanese in reflection of the master's admiration for those colonial cultures (and, it's implied, disdain for his own). The picture deals with that plurality, the Stockholm Syndrome-element of acculturation that finds the conquered in diseased sympathy with the conqueror. That Park has chosen English texts as the foundation for his last two films suggests a certain internal play that comments if not on how South Korea as a nation has been seduced by the West, at least on how South Korean cinema has been heavily influenced by the same. His The Handmaiden revolves around the titular servant, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a trained pickpocket with plans to convince innocent Hideko (Kim Min-hee), niece of rich book collector Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), to fall in love with her employer, the (fake) Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), and run away with him, Kouzuki's riches in tow. The film is told in three parts, the first of which unfolds this plot, complicated unexpectedly by Sook-hee falling in love with Hideko herself. The second part tells the story again from Hideko's point-of-view, complicated now by the revelation that Hideko may not be as unaware of Sook-hee's machinations as first suggested. The final third resolves the tale as essentially a statement on sexual empowerment and a primal, ferocious, feminist triumph.
It's hard to keep up with the intimidating volume of feints and counters, of unravelling and critical strategies, that The Handmaiden could endure. Begin with the casting of Koreans as Japanese, or rather Koreans pretending to be Japanese, and follow that rabbit hole down into myriad rationales offered for this deception (shame at being Korean, opportunism in pretending to be Japanese, opportunism in pretending to have learned Korean as a Japanese man when seeking to seduce a Korean woman, and on and on) before landing on the idea that there's really no way to crystallize the reasons one culture appropriates another--nor the consequences, intended or otherwise, of doing so. Sook-hee and Hideko's affair, beginning with an unbelievably erotic filing-down of one of their teeth and ending in an explicit tryst that, at one point, appears to take on the subjective viewpoint of one of their vaginas, is deconstructed first as a street-wise urchin (pretending to be a highly-recommended/well-heeled handmaiden) helping a cloistered naïf discover carnal pleasure before falling in love with her innocence, then as a calculating sexual predator (pretending to be a cloistered naïf) who has spent all of her childhood in a book-bound sexual slavery of sorts to her impotent uncle, sexual play-acting for her own sexual gratification while manipulating a street-wise--but only street-wise--urchin into her own web of deception.
The Handmaiden is so complex a puzzle box that it's a wonder there's never a moment that's confusing. Park is probably best-known for his visual mastery of the medium, but his films are indicated as much by the density of their plots and, simultaneously, by the room his characters are given to develop. They're an almost impossible combination: Something that's technically brilliant that is also an actor's workshop that is also a labyrinthine narrative contraption. Park's movies are like John Dickson Carr's closed-room murder mysteries, all trick and joust and manners. Something like Joe Mankiewicz and Anthony Schaffer's Sleuth and little like anything else since. What fascinates about Park, though, is that there's a bit of de Sade in him as well--an author only name-dropped in The Handmaiden but suggested throughout in its illicit sexuality and intimate tortures. In the film's best revelation, Park shows exactly how the niece and her uncle spend their time--a scene paid off two-fold: first when the master's collection is gutted, then when the Count is treated to the ministrations of a book-binding contraption as Kouzuki desperately tries to catalogue and chronicle details of the transgressions in which he's trafficked since the occupation. At their heart, Park's films are about fucking and all the adornments culture wants to attach to it to pretty it up, perfume it, disguise it, suppress it, sell it, buy it, punish it, and celebrate it. The Handmaiden is his most optimistic picture yet, in that its conclusion seems to be that at the end of the trade and perversion, sex is fun, and sacred still for the ways it's misused and understood. It's positive, and what an extraordinary moment when someone like Park allows himself that positivity.