If you have been a follower of Korean movies in the last decades, you may have already realized that the Korean filmmakers often integrate arthouse into mainstream. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a renowned director such as Park Chan-wook’s some of best works are independent movies, which quite possibly plays a role in them standing out to such extent. The Handmaiden (2016), for which Park Chan-wook acts as director and producer, is another success in his resume. The plot starts simple enough: Sook-hee, a young and skilled thief, is approached by an ambitious conman assuming the name Count Fujiwara. He plans to marry the troubled and naïve Lady Hideko so that he can get her committed to a mental asylum and seize her fortune. Unfortunately for him, Hideko’s fearsome uncle is determined to marry the Lady himself. Fujiwara offers Sook-hee a share from the fortune if she works as Hideko’s handmaiden, spying on and manipulating the Lady into eloping with him. Although the plot is laid out from the beginning, the moment Sook-hee meets Lady Hideko clearly signals that things will not be as simple as they seemed. While Sook-hee finds herself more and more entranced by Lady Hideko, the dark secrets that haunt the characters are revealed one by one.
As would be expected of Park Chan-wook, the Handmaiden has a tasteful balance of drama, gallows humor, and suspense. What is more amazing is that the movie has a consistent tone despite it being separated into clear-cut parts. We often see the same events from different characters’ points of view, repeated from different perspectives. These scenes complete each other, paralleling how the characters also complete each other as they reveal more about themselves. The mystery and the romance are integrated into each other, repeatedly blindsiding the audience. Still, the characterization and the plot remain consistent despite the complexity; every scene feels like another natural consequence of the events that have unfolded so far. As such, it is the relationships between the characters that manipulate the simple story the audience was given in the beginning. Care in character writing was integral for such a movie to succeed and the Handmaiden certainly delivers.
The Handmaiden can also be regarded as a big feminist step for cinema. Many critics believe that the male gaze and comparatively superficial writing for female characters lower the quality of the artwork and alienate women. Feminist critics argue that female characters are often objectified, used as plot tools, and are unrelatable to the audiences due to unrealistic writing. The problem seems to lie at the fact that female characters are not written as intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally deep as their male counterparts. Conversely, the Handmaiden’s plot is shaped mainly by the leading female characters; exploring their minds and their worlds is an integral part of the process. We see Sook-hee and Hideko both at their highs and lows. We see them struggle, make mistakes, learn, and adapt. The Handmaiden avoids the mistakes that are committed all too often in the cinema industry; the women are neither flawless nor unrealistically flawed here. Afterall, the success of the movie as an artwork depends on the audience’s involvement with the story, which is carried by the two protagonist women.
Even more astonishingly, the Handmaiden does not equate strength with masculinity. Whereas in many movies the strong female characters are largely stripped off traditionally feminine qualities, Sook-hee and Hideko find strength within themselves and each other without having to suppress their compassionate, emotional, and overall, traditionally feminine characteristics. Sook-Hee is a survivor, but the skills needed to adapt the poverty-ridden streets dulled neither her compassion nor tenderness. Sook-Hee’s strength coexists with her urge to protect and defend, described not-so-subtly as maternalistic in its essence. She has a lot of compassion for the defenseless and the exploited, her compassion producing anger against those who prey on the weak. Hideko and Sook-hee seemingly start off as pawns in a game played by men. Count Fujiwara and Uncle Kouzuki are similar in their desire to own these women as assets. The resulting inability to see Sook-hee and Hideko without objectifying them and looking down on them allows the women to change the rules of the game, however.
Overall, the Handmaiden is definitely a must-see, especially if you have a special interest in seeing well-respresented women and lesbian relationships in cinema. It is noteworthy that the scenes involving sexual themes differ greatly from each other in terms of mood. While the sounds and visuals of the passionate lovemaking scene between Hideko and Sook-hee reflect their mutual feelings of excitement and bonding, Hideko’s scenes with the two antagonist male characters carry senses of dread, unease, fear, or disgust. As such, the erotic scenes come off as parts of the natural progression of the story just as any other scene; sometimes dramatic, sometimes comedic, and sometimes climactic. Kim Tae-ri suits the role of the fierce but compassionate Sook-hee perfectly in her debut performance. The versatile yet serene Lady Hideko is portrayed by Kim Min-hee with chilling subtlety. But once again, the Handmaiden is also a mystery movie, so get ready to experience a mix of different genres. Beyond romance, the movie’s tone also fits the suspenseful and thrilling plot. Although her role is relatively brief, director Chan-wook’s frequent collaborator Kim Hae-sook gives a noteworthy performance as a persistent force lurking in the shadows. The soundtrack, the acting, and the editing complement the story to provide a fully fleshed out epic of mystery.