There’s easily a dozen lenses through which to view Park Chan-Wook’s love triangle con epic, The Handmaiden, but the most productive context may be the ways it conforms to the contours of the Victorian genre. Based on but drastically altered from Sarah Waters’ historical crime novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden is nonetheless a classically Victorian film with its interest in characters who defy the expectations of their birthright. This is a story of gentility and vulgarity where the stakes are less about Jane Austen-esque romantic courtship or the economic oppression of George Gissing’s The Nether World than the literal gendered possession of women’s agency.
Separated into three parts that continue to re-contextualize a story that admits its trickster nature within the opening minutes, The Handmaiden revolves principally around three characters whose lives are suspended in the assumptions around them.
The daughter of a legendary thief, Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) has lived a life of illusion and false intentions in both the emotional connections she’s built and her livelihood. In the opening minutes, she’s recruited by Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a huckster who’s built his own reputation as a master forger and learned the surface gestures of a gentlemen without living out any of those values. Their mark is Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the only living daughter of a family that made their fortune from a gold mine. Lady Hideko has lived in her Uncle Kouzuki’s lavish manor since she was six years old, forced to learn Japanese because of her uncle’s strange imperialist whims, and party to other vices that are revealed later in the story.
Count Fujiwara’s plan appears simple: he needs Sookee to become Lady Hideko’s chambermaid, and help convince her that she’s fallen in love with Fujiwara, whose already spent his own time setting himself up as her ideal suitor. Then, once Fujiwara has convinced her to marry him, he will then have Lady Hideko sent to an asylum, and run away with the money.
It’s a testament to the contorting nature of the entire film that nothing in the plot description is a spoiler. On the contrary, every aspect of the film is about the layers of misdirection from the use of two different languages — yellow subtitles indicate Japanese, white subtitles indicate Korean — to the visual intimacy. In Part 1, Park Chan-Wook’s camerawork plays coy in capturing the action, but the movements become more grandiose and emboldened as the film un-peels each new element to the story. Coinciding with the themes of opaque surfaces, Part 1 is shot in a way where the camera always feels like a voyeur watching ordinary conversations through canted windows, or obscuring perspective with ajar doors.
As the film goes on, it keeps returning to those moments, but it soon reveals that it’s not very interested in the central con. Rather, it’s far more invested in how Sookee and Lady Hideko contradict the assumptions about each other. From the beginning, Sookee believes that Lady Hideko is deeply fragile like a china doll, but both women are far more complicated than what can be immediately expressed, and the central con storyline is more an excuse to confront the ways that both women feel beholden to their intended roles in the world.
Rest assured, this is still a very much Park Chan-Wook film, and the latter halves of the film are filled with enough gruesome violence, graphic sexuality and perverse kinks that it’s clearly a film from one of the directors who gave South Korea such a reputation for extremism. But The Handmaiden also feels more in line with directors like Max Ophuls in how it examines the subjective value of wealth and the way that romance is so intrinsically linked with personal truth.
Likewise, there’s a strong thematic through line in how Sookee and Lady Hideko have only ever understood desire as a form of violence and control rather than a source of pleasure. That’s literalized through the role of Ben Wa Balls in the story, but also more acutely in the way that both women only experience sex through a male gaze. That leads to fascinating discussions about transferring love into something more pure, but it also leads to arguably the major flaw of the film.
Comparable to the arguments about Blue Is the Warmest Color, The Handmaiden is a film about women fighting back against men who try to control their identity, but the film and the camera’s gaze is just as guilty of trying to hold these women to a certain definition. The act of showing two characters having sex is a betrayal of the story’s ultimate message. And even as the camera chooses vantage points of elegant mirrors or lavish wide angles, there’s still the knowledge that these are scenes have been created for titilation rather than true liberation. In a film that’s otherwise so devoted to giving these women the opportunity to create a new identity, The Handmaiden can’t help but peek into their new lives.
Michael Snydel (@snydel) is a writer based in Chicago who has been obsessed with film and film reviews since he could read. For the first decade of his life, he could bizarrely tell you the rating of nearly film that came out. He now tries to devote his time to less pointless things. He writes regularly for The Film Stage and has written for Paste Magazine and The Dissolve (RIP).