Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For August, we honor the absurd humor and abject violence of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. Read the rest of our coverage here.
“Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them, how literature would suffer!”
So wrote Virginia Woolf in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own when she opened a book written by a woman and discovered, to her shock, that two female characters liked each other, and tried to recall instances in her reading where such a simple development had occurred, rather than women simply being seen in their relationship to men. It’s hardly a surprise that she found they were indeed few and far between.
This is in part what makes Park Chan-wook’s 2016 film The Handmaiden so remarkable. It’s not just that two young women manage to form a bond based on mutual love, respect, and trust despite formidable obstacles, which include class and colonialism, it’s that a film like The Handmaiden was finally possible.
Adapted from the 2002 Welsh novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden moves the action from Victorian era Britain to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 30’s. Park isn’t one to take the simplistic route, but he’s clearly a believer in the Roger Ebert school of thought, which favors appreciation over deconstruction, the latter of which Ebert referred to in his memoirs as a kind of savagery which “which approaches literature as pliers do a rose.”
Likewise, the various layers in a plot which seems straightforward enough, as a Korean pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) teams up with conman posing as Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to persuade the Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) to marry the (fake) count so they can throw her in an asylum and run off with her inheritance, unfolds much much like a delicate rose would, albeit one with an undercurrent of rot as darker and darker secrets are revealed.
[Park]’s clearly a believer in the Roger Ebert school of thought, which favors appreciation over deconstruction.
The many twists and turns to come are also indicative of somewhat of a long, mostly unacknowledged phenomenon even in our own time, that of how much female friendship plays a positive role in the lives of girls and women. It’s been something of an open secret, given how often female characters were placed in conflict with each other on-screen, often at the behest of men. Even when films have acknowledged the love women can find with each other, they can often be more concerned with the erotic potential of the situation, as was the case with the 2013 French film Blue Is the Warmest Color, and which has since come under criticism both for how it portrayed its central lesbian romance, and the toxic atmosphere on set.
The comparison between the two films, which were released within a few years of each other and place a heavy emphasis on eroticism, are inevitable. But where Blue Is the Warmest Color is seen as deeply emblematic of its time a mere seven years after its release, The Handmaiden has built up quite the devoted following and mostly kept it, even in a post Portrait of a Lady on Fire world.
Which brings us to the most salacious topic: the sex scenes. Both are courtesy of male directors, and both place an emphasis on the beauty of young, lithe female bodies discovering pleasure in each other. The similarities, however, pretty much end there. Where Blue amounts to little else than softcore porn, leaving no room for awkwardness or any real intimacy, The Handmaiden is in on the joke, and in a fashion that eventually comes at the satisfyingly brutal expense of its male characters.
How Sook-hee and Hideko kick off their physical relationship is, in fact, straight out of a male fantasy, as the supposedly sheltered, innocent Hideko asks Sook-hee, who is posing as her handmaiden, to teach her what men desire, and what her would-be husband the count will expect from her. These two have in fact been performing for each other from the start, as Sook-hee is planning on betraying Hideko, ignorant that Hideko has plans of her own.
The culmination of the mutual desire that’s been building between them is actually shown twice, after more has been revealed and the playful aspect of their relationship is emphasized even more, along with their intimacy. Sook-hee goes down on Hideko and comes up with a face wet with the evidence of Hideko’s pleasure, and later says she wishes her breasts had milk so she could feed Hideko, and later the two grasp hands while in the throes of their newfound passion, having long left any thoughts of the count behind, further evidence of a connection that’s becoming more and more real.
Sook-hee and Hideko are in fact the only ones who are eventually able to be their true selves with each other. In one way or another, every character in The Handmaiden is performing. Hideko’s uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Cho), a brutal man who has been attempting to bend his niece to his will ever since childhood, despises his Koreanness and has been attempting to become Japanese by taking a Japanese wife and adopting her name, as well as Japanese style and customs.
Count Fujiwara has his own game. He is the son of a Korean farmhand who is pretending to be a dissolute Japanese nobleman, and continues to believe he’s pulling all the strings, deceiving not just Kouzuki, but Sook-hee as well, all so he can throw her into the asylum and control Hideko himself. He can only see Hideko as the lust object her uncle has attempted to mold her into by forcing her to read sadistic pornography to him and other men he invites to his home for the purpose. Part of the reason Fujiwara and Kouzuki ultimately lose everything is neither can imagine one woman turning the tables on them, let alone two.
Then again, they’re not the only ones. Hideko has been raised to bring male fantasies to life, and those fantasies involve objectifying and disregarding her in order to prioritizing their own desires. No wonder she’s grown into an ice cold, highly adaptable woman with few illusions. Even Sook-hee, who was raised among thieves and conmen, and is effortlessly able to see through Count Fujiwara in a way her peers cannot, is unable to discern Hideko’s disguise.
And why would she? Why would anyone? Hideko isn’t supposed to be a hardened, savvy survivor who takes her life and fate into her own hands. She’s supposed to be the madwoman in the attic, the spoiled rich girl, or the fragile ghost of a woman drifting through her opulent surroundings waiting for her prince to rescue her. Much like Amy, the femme fatale of Gone Girl, she has been playing various roles all her life, and she knows how to play a part to perfection.
Yet Hideko is rescued against all odds, by someone who has every reason to despise her, especially in a luxurious home that is in fact a tribute to some of the biggest colonizers at the time, being built in English and Japanese style. Hideko herself often adopts the violence she’s been taught in her abusive childhood, physically lashing out against those around her, and not all of her victims are deserving ones. She also masterminds violence against other women, concocting the plot to get rid of her old handmaiden and throw the replacement, Sook-hee, in the asylum.
Hideko’s and Sook-hee’s relationship is able to blossom in part because they playfully switch up the roles they’ve taken on and those allotted them, and it’s difficult to imagine it being portrayed with such sensitivity and understanding in any time but our own, when we’re just beginning to see the wide range of the bonds women form with each other, both platonically and otherwise, and rediscovering great female writers of the past.
Eve Babitz, one such writer, would regularly extol the women she knew and the friendships she made with some of them, “who always fascinated me by their wit, bravery, and resourcefulness, and who never told you the same story twice.” Or, as her agent put it, “‘You know that when you have dinner with a girlfriend, you’re going to come back a whole human being.’”
Likewise, Sook-hee and Hideko’s relationship allows them to become more whole, finally able to be seen and treated as equals, transforming the oppressive symbols to tools of liberation. A rope and a leap of faith become emblems of joyous rebirth, rather than death. Tools used for punishment become reclaimed as objects of pleasure. They destroy what they cannot redeem, such as the stories Hideko has been forced to read. And as a lifelong bibliophile who flinched when the first scroll was destroyed in Agora, a film that makes me exult in the destruction of any kind of writing is truly remarkable.
Some writers, such as Patricia Highsmith in The Price of Salt, or Carol, as it’s also known, have questioned whether it’s even possible for a rapport like this to exist between men and women. Or as Highsmith’s titular character wrote in 1952, “the rapport between two men or two women can be absolute and perfect, as it can never be between man and woman.” Perhaps it was impossible, or nearly so in a time when gender roles and conformity were so firmly rooted in so many of us. Maybe the lasting, most glorious impression The Handmaiden leaves is that sex and gender in themselves can be a source of fun and exploration, far beyond what’s been dictated for us, whether on the page or otherwise.