The Handmaiden (2016, dir. Park Chan-Wook)
In the 1920s, Korea was under the control of Japan as part of its expanding empire. In this state of affairs lives Tamako, a pickpocket raised by a Fagin-esque house mother. Tamako is chosen by the art forger “Count Fujiwara” to be his accomplice in collecting the fortune of a young Japanese noble lady. This involves Tamako posing as her new handmaiden and traveling to live with the woman on her uncle’s rural estate. Tamako feels an almost immediate bond with her new mistress, Lady Hideko when they first meet. However, she begins to learn the relationship between Lady Hideko and Uncle Kouzuki is much more complicated and darker than she first expected. When Fujiwara arrives at the estate, Tamako finds herself forced to carry out a plan she is no longer comfortable with. But there is more going on here than our protagonist realizes.
I haven’t devoured the work of Park Chan-wook, but what I have seen I’ve loved. Oldboy is the title most film fans would recognize, but I enjoyed his vampire film Thirst more. His first English-language film Stoker was an engaging moody art house flick. But The Handmaiden feels like a pinnacle film. Much like, Moonlight which I just watched and reviewed, The Handmaiden is made by a filmmaker who is very confident in his work. Every technical, structural, and character element is finely crafted and presented. The story elements are woven with a subtext that speaks to colonialism, identity, and sexuality. What you end up with is a film that misses no marks and is near perfection.
The film is presented in three chapters, the first is focused on Tamako, the second on Lady Hideko, and the third acts as the denouement of the story. From the opening frames, Tamako is presented as a very captivating character. She is an incredibly confident young woman who quickly switches between her own personality and the submissive handmaiden, Sook-lee. Without giving away the second act reveal, our presentation of Tamako is colored in a very biased way and in the second chapter we see her in a very different light, the same is said for Lady Hideko.
Lady Hideko, the co-protagonist of the film, is an incredibly complicated character. She was raised by her Uncle and late Aunt, and the dark history she has in the estate is truly disturbing. Her Uncle treasures his vast book collection many than any human, his late wife included, and this obsession has ties to what led her to be found hanging from the cherry blossom tree in the yard. Hideko is a character who provokes emotions and reactions from everyone around her, a trait that is important as men come from Japan to hear her do dramatic readings from her Uncle’s collection. What she does to Tamako can at times seem cruel, but there is a dark secret behind her motives.
The Handmaiden is a very difficult film to talk about without giving away secrets. The film borrows heavily from the tone of classic Gothic literature (Rebecca, Jane Eyre) but also feels indebted to Noir like Double Indemnity. The estate itself is a fusion of Japanese and English architecture (the film is based on a British novel). Beyond the story is a commentary on the complicated history between Japan and Korea. Hideko’s Uncle is a Korean who desperately wishes to be Japanese. So much so he married a Japanese noblewoman and took her family name over his. He comments at one point that everything about Korea is filth and he wants to wash it away. Moments like that elevate a film that could be a simple thriller to a piece of filmmaking that has something to say about it’s creator’s cultural history. This is a film that once you see it, you’ll have frames frozen in your mind for a long time after.