‘Handmaiden’ driven by complex characters
In English-speaking countries, South Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s latest film is called “The Handmaiden.” In Korea, it’s called “Agassi,” which is a polite term for a young woman, often translated as “lady.” The Korean title captures much more of what Park’s latest masterpiece is really about: femininity, etiquette, tenderness and its absence.
Don’t worry Park fans; it’s not like the director of 2003’s gruesome revenge thriller “Oldboy” has gone soft. What he has done is made a thoughtful and captivating exploration of female sexuality and all the ways men misunderstand and horrifically abuse it.
Set in Japan-occupied Korea during the early 1900s, the story follows a Korean girl named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) who is hired as the new handmaiden of an unstable Japanese heiress named Lady Himeko (Kim Min-hee). Secretly, Sook-Hee is in cahoots with Himeko’s new gentleman caller, a Korean con artist posing as a Japanese baron (Ha Jung-woo). He plans to marry her, take her fortune and then lock her up in an asylum, but Sook-Hee’s job — persuading Himeko to fall for the baron — gets harder when she herself begins falling in love with the heiress — and the heiress reciprocates.
Park adapted “The Handmaiden” from a novel set in Victorian England, but the film’s new setting better suits his version of the story. The film wonderfully parallels Japan’s conquest of Korea with how men view women throughout the film: as objects to be used and discarded, unworthy of sympathy and incapable of thought. But the heart of the film is Sook-Hee and Himeko’s relationship.
With his typical mastery of genre — in this case, the period romance — Park depicts each woman’s gradual attraction to the other, their inner conflicts about both their sexualities and the social complications of who they’re actually falling in love with. The film’s NC-17 rating comes from a sex scene where they finally consummate that attraction, and it’s the tenderest moment in the movie.
But again, Park Chan-Wook veterans know that he’s not interested in straightforward genre flicks. Like with “Oldboy,” Park bobs and weaves in and out of genre tropes as they suit his interests, keeping the film expertly paced and consistently surprising. The film also stays fresh through its almost-three-hour runtime due to its wide emotional range. Before the credits roll, the audience feels warm romance, horrid disgust, deep sadness and the sweet taste of just revenge. It could almost be a screwball comedy, if you forget about every male character in the film.
Just as its principals all keep secrets from each other, so too the film tricks the audience constantly. It slowly but steadily unfolds as we see the same events from different characters’ perspectives.
Park is an efficient storyteller; he doesn’t draw attention to a prop or a line if it doesn’t come back in some important way later. By the end, the audience knows every room and every secret in the bizarre mansion where Himeko’s uncle keeps her.
It also helps that “The Handmaiden” is a beautiful film to look at. While it does not employ as many memorable shots and neat visual tricks as some of Park’s other outings, the movie’s sedated color palette and precise framing complement its period setting and themes of secrecy and female oppression.
But ultimately, “The Handmaiden’s” characters drive the film. It’s the depth of their struggles, the complexity of their personalities and the humanity imbued in even the most repulsive parts of the cast that make Park’s “The Handmaiden” a masterpiece.