Marina Abramović famously wrote that an artist should develop an erotic point of view, echoing a sentiment expressed by Gustav Klimt that “all art is erotic.” The Handmaiden, the latest film from Korean genre provocateur Park Chan-wook, is an upending, taboo-shattering exploration of this very notion. Adapted from Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden trades the novel’s Victorian England backdrop for 1930s Korea, then under Japanese occupation. This shift interestingly proves better suited to the film’s central themes, creating a cultural and linguistic texture, presented through color-coded Korean and Japanese subtitles, as well as a fusion of East-meets-West aesthetic and architectural influences — whose historical tensions complement and augment its exploration of the multifaceted and mutable nature of identity. And with a lush, slightly surreal lustfulness infused with a kind of Hitchcockian, Gothic neo-noir aesthetic, Park demonstrates how the complicated relationship between role-play, desire, secrecy, power and revenge prove ripe for darkly comic (and perverse) fodder.
Centered on four scheming main characters, and structurally divided into three parts, the film quickly sets in motion an elaborate and twisty plot that only grows more thorny and unpredictable as it continues to pull the rug out from under viewers. The Handmaiden begins with Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim), a peppy, shrewd pickpocket and social-ladder-climbing thief who becomes the audience surrogate for the first part of the narrative. With her con artist profession serving as a nice callback to Fingersmith’s Dickensian roots, Sook-Hee (who also goes by her Japanese name Tamako) is standing in the rain amongst her family of fellow hustlers. She is waiting for the car that will take her to the mansion of the sadistic Count Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), where she will serve as a handmaiden to the Count’s imprisoned niece and possible future-wife Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). A Japanese-born heiress and melancholic, mysterious porcelain beauty, Lady Hideko has, since childhood, been confined to her maternal family’s estate grounds as her Uncle primes her for marriage, while also enlisting her for more perverted purposes (reading excerpts of pornographic fiction noblemen). But Sook-Hee isn’t really there to serve as the Lady’s maiden; she’s been hired by a conman — the fake “Count” Fujiwara — to assist him in his duplicitous plan to marry the Lady and have her committed to an asylum so he can inherit her entire fortune. It turns out that Hideko’s Uncle Kouzuki, a Korean-born pornographic book collector who fetishizes Japanese culture, has a similar plan in mind — and as he becomes a mentor of sorts to Fujiwara, the traces of intrigue quickly materialize and multiply.
With a cunning slipperiness that nimbly weaves and navigates between the story’s overlaps and gaps, Park unfurls his saga through elliptical chapters that halt the narrative at crucial moments of crisis and suspense, allowing each successive chapter to loop back and tell the same story from a different perspective. Such inverted and contrived plot machinations form the bedrock of the film’s shifting identities, with its narrative guises and tonal fluctuations aptly reflecting the characters’ own mercurial pretenses and labyrinthine walls of secrecy. For the first 45 minutes out of a nearly two-and-a-half-hour film, Park focuses on Sook-Hee as she ingratiates herself with the Lady, hoping to gain her trust and ear so as to persuade her to elope with the imposter Fujiwara. It isn’t long, though, before things start to go awry, and Sook-Hee finds herself falling in lust with the Lady. Yet Hideko has also cooked up a scheme of her own, and what begins as a game of double-crossing quickly transforms into mutual seduction. As curiosity and desire begins to inconveniently puncture the characters’ shields of deception, Park mounts a steady trickle of sexual tension by way of erotically charged glances, gestures and dress-up games. In one of the film’s most intimate, suggestive and beautifully composed scenes, Sook-Hee gives a bath to the mistress Hideki; an explicit and implicit nod to the fetishism of master and servant, nurse and patient, mother and baby, doll and child dynamics. With Hideko sucking on a lollipop and gazing straight at the camera, Sook-Hee gently inserts a thimbled finger inside the mistress’s mouth to file a sharpened tooth. The symbolic innocence of that piece of candy — resting so close to the back-and-forth motion of Sook-Hee’s hand — renders Hideko into a place of submission; a refined Lolita willingly playing the part of Sook-Hee’s passive doll.
As the maiden and the mistress’ coy attraction becomes more carnal, Park judiciously escalates the sexual tension at a leisurely pace, etching in the details of character motivations and plot mechanics beyond the bedroom, in a kind of cinematic foreplay. By teasing viewers through a slow buildup of fetishistic role-playing, Park allows the actual moment of Sook-Hee and Hideko’s consummation to become a tantric release of ecstasy and giddy abandon, and the women — succumbing to their carnal impulsivity and fantasies — manage to be simultaneously spontaneous and conscious of the ways in which they perform for one another.
In keeping with Park’s body of work, The Handmaiden certainly doesn’t shy away from its voyeuristic preoccupations and embraces its penchant for spectacle. It isn’t surprising, then, that Park — whose art is inseparable from the erotic — would want to peel back the layers of stigmatization surrounding kinks, fetishes and psychosexual impulses. And in doing so, he presents a distilled and highly specific portrait of the spectrum of sex and sexuality, whose idiosyncratic and fully realized characters are anchored in an understanding of the sometimes inexplicable nature of human desire and basal carnality. A study in the art of the tease, The Handmaiden presents characters whose underlying perversions, pathologies and predilections are just waiting to be unveiled from beneath the veneer of mannered decorum, restraint, social order and aristocratic refinement — not unlike the buttons on Hideko’s corset that, for Sook-Hee, exist solely for the tactile pleasure of undress. As with those corset buttons, Park understands that minutiae can heighten a moment’s intimacy, and he communicates the uniquely erotic delight in fixating on specific details. This explains the film’s fascination with hands, evidenced by when Sook-Hee files Hideko’s tooth, or when she caresses her fingers along the back of Hideko’s bodice, or even when the two women clasp hands in a moment of ecstasy. It’s fitting, then, how both the novel and the film reference hands (or fingers) in their titles, given the tactile mastery of the lesbian hand as a tool for eliciting erotic pleasure. And while The Handmaiden (mostly) spares viewers from the gore and graphic violence that have become staples of Park’s films, it nonetheless preserves his trademark corporeal curiosities.
Yet all the while, Park actively challenges the male fetishization of lesbian sex, which doesn’t exist to satisfy the pleasures of men, so much as it does assert a kind of feminist rebellion that briefly indulges, yet ultimately resists, the male gaze. Park demonstrates this best in the way The Handmaiden renders the initial sexual encounter — which is revisited a second time, but from Hideko’s perspective. As seen from Sook-Hee’s vantage point, one can assume that Hideko is an inexperienced and naïve novice. Yet by the second time around, more details have emerged, and the scene suddenly registers very differently. It’s revealed that Sook-hee’s innocence was but a strategic rouse; a pretense in service of a greater search for freedom and autonomy. Yet unbeknownst to Hideko, this deceptive power move actually ends up tapping into reserves of erotic impulse, fiery passion and primal lust. And what began as a sleight of hand transforms into an unexpected moment of vulnerability, as the Lady learns that she is more innocent, wide-eyed, affected and in thrall to her desire for Sook-Hee than she initially thought. For both women, such moments of revelation and authenticity carry a weight of empowerment that their male counterparts don’t enjoy.
As Park explores the psychological contours of deception, power and role-play through the prism of sex, The Handmaiden seems to suggest that liberation and self-actualization can only be attained when one has fully surrendered their ego, embraced their prurient instincts and allowed themselves to be openly vulnerable and fully in the moment. And in granting his heroines the transcendent power of sexual agency and unfettered pleasure, Mr. Park has re-appropriated the representation of lesbian sexuality to craft an unlikely feminist — and subversively romantic — love story.
Demitra “Demi” Kampakis (@DemionFilm) is a Cinema Studies major who graduated with a Bachelors of Science degree in Biology. She is a Brooklyn-based neurotic film fiend with a soft spot for any auteur-driven psychological fare. As the current film editor for Posture Magazine, Demi has also written for Indiewire and Film Comment, and she uses her spare time to manage her own website Cinefiles of a Cinephile.