Danielle Colburn ’20 Assistant Copy Editor
“The Handmaiden,” directed by Park Chan-wook, is a psychological thriller based on the Welsh novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. While “Fingersmith” took place in Victorian England, Park Chan-wook ingeniously adapted the novel’s premise to 1930s Korea, which existed under Japanese colonial rule. The film follows a spritely Korean pickpocket, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), as she teams up with a clever con man by the name of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) in a heist to rob a mysterious yet innocent Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), of her inheritance.
While Count Fujiwara poses as a charismatic Japanese aristocrat with the plan of seducing Lady Hideko into marriage, then committing her to an insane asylum to gain complete control of her inheritance, Sook-Hee infiltrates Lady Hideko’s household as her new maid. What Sook-Hee doesn’t plan on is the mounting tension—both romantic and sexual—she experiences for Lady Hideko as the two bond over their haunting pasts and their reluctance to submit to the men who try to control them. As Sook-Hee learns, she and Count Fujiwara are not the only ones with their eyes on Lady Hideko’s inheritance; Hideko’s uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), is a chillingly austere intellectual, with an ink-stained tongue, who keeps Hideko confined to her Korean residence and plans to use her inheritance only to purchase more books.
With Count Fujiwara, Lady Hideko is under the impression she might find freedom, yet she is puzzled by his romantic advances overall. Among uncomfortable tensions and beautifully-executed twists, Sook-Hee struggles to ignore her feelings for Lady Hideko and to convince her to take Count Fujiwara’s hand—all while navigating the politics of an estate with disturbing secrets that she doesn’t understand, but lurk beneath the surface from the film’s beginning.
Fans of Park Chan-wook’s previous films, from the bloody, high-energy “Oldboy” (2003) to the twisted, modern Gothic English-language tale “Stoker” (2013), will be delighted by the familiar twists found in “The Handmaiden,” in addition to the director’s signature interest in the darker parts of the human psyche. While Park Chan-wook is well known for expertly slipping high-pressure and morally questionable twists into his film, the depth of his characters in “The Handmaiden” is also impressive. Even the villains of the film are fully fleshed out and exhibit fascinating motivations, such as Count Fujiwara’s complex desire to acquire Hideko’s inheritance not for greed, but so he can fit into the Japanese upper class and escape his Korean farm boy origins. The four main leads in the film were all captivating in their own right, but Kim Tae-ri was particularly praiseworthy as the lovable, expressive and often quick-witted Sook-Hee.
As a period piece, “The Handmaiden” is not only visually stunning, but also brilliant in its use of Japanese-Korean history in the film’s plot and execution. From the 1910s to the 1940s, Korea experienced oppressive colonialism and racism at the hand of Japan to the point that Korean children were taught how to read, write and speak Japanese in schools, and would be harshly punished if they spoke in their native tongue. With respect to this cultural dynamic, the characters of “The Handmaiden” often switch between Korean and Japanese, with subtitles uniquely indicating the change; Korean lines are depicted in white, while Japanese lines are depicted in yellow.
Furthermore, the film’s wardrobes and architecture are an enthralling mix of Western and traditional Japanese-Korean influences, indicative of that time period: kimonos and haoris mingle among Western business suits and evening gowns, and the traditional Japanese architecture of Lady Hideko’s estate is offset by her uncle’s harsh industrial mechanisms and devices.
“The Handmaiden” is an intriguing and oftentimes gut-wrenching film, but it is not without its flaws. The film’s disturbing elements, particularly three-quarters of the way through the film, may not be for everyone, something typical of Park Chan-wook’s style. While Park Chan-wook has made it clear in interviews that he wishes to hand power to female characters, the film’s long and often borderline-unrealistic lesbian sex scenes will undoubtedly be cited alongside films such as “Blue Is The Warmest Color” in debates about the fetishized depiction of lesbian relations in films by male directors. However, in the end, the film’s splash at Cannes last May was well earned, and it is definitely worth a watch. While the film came out in South Korea last June, it is now available for U.S. audiences on Amazon Prime, Youtube and other online streaming services as of Jan. 24.