“THE HANDMAIDEN” IS Park Chan-Wook’s outrageously sexy retelling of Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”, a story originally set in Victorian London, now transferred to 1930’s Japanese occupied Korea. The story – structured around the delicious contrasts of bright surface opulence with dark hidden deceptions – centres on the lusts, fantasies and longings of four main characters. Sookie (Kim Tae-ri) is a low life pickpocket in the pay of a con-man (Ha Jung-woo). She has been briefed to present herself, as a respectable handmaiden to the wealthy (and reputedly naive) heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee), in order to subtly woo her on behalf of her con-man boss, now disguised as the aristocratic Count Fujiwara. His intent is to seduce Hideko away from her uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), an old lecher and collector of erotica, who also has designs on Hideko’s fortune.
Despite their stark social differences, dramatised by the dingy hovel of the one versus the palatial splendour of the other, Sookie and Hideko are both prisoners…of circumstance and convention. Both have been bred and trained, like decorative birds, to do the bidding of their breeders: Sookie to steal, Hideko to engage and entertain her uncle’s book-buying clientele with her lascivious readings of his erotica. To their male ‘masters’, they’re no more than beautiful, erotic routes to their deepest lusts…for money not sex. And as the handmaiden dresses herself in her mistress’ dresses, they both become interchangeable…almost mirror images of each other.
But the men, so wrapped up in their own sense of haughty masculine superiority (It would not be inappropriate in this context to describe them as “cock-sure”) have no inkling of the far deeper deviousness of these two trapped women. Freedom will out. In one glorious scene, Hideko -she who can go nowhere- introduces the bare-footed Sookie to her serried rows of shoes…and offers her a pair. Now they both have the -physical- ability to roam. And in their unspoken search to free themselves from society’s norms/masculine control, they discover the freedom in each other’s bodies. In the trust and tenderness of intimacy lies the healing measure of freedom. Park’s (and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon’s) sensuous, almost tactile cinematography delights as much in the tingle and shimmer of their naked bodies as it does on the textures and gloss of their clothes and surroundings.
Control (the first part of the story is very measured and mannered) gives way to love in a wonderfully, intricately plotted story that frequently loops back on itself, seen from differing points of view and with a single, gasp-inducing twist in the middle. One of the themes that drives the movie is that of the illumination or deception of storytelling (or the art of lying): each of the characters frames a narrative aimed at masking intent and creating a desired image; Hideko’s “role” in life is to seduce by her storytelling; The Count comes along with an entirely fabricated back story; the uncle’s tongue has been blackened with the stories he writes even though his library is a place of truth (in the same way the serpent brought truth in The Garden, etc.
It’s one of those movies that – like the best thrillers- makes more and more sense to the viewers (as susceptible to seduction as any one of the characters) the more privy they are to the layers of deceit that, like Hideko’s garments, are slowly removed, eventually revealing all.
This is certainly a “see it again” movie. Now armed with the knowledge of the end, and of Park’s sleight of hand’s deceptions of surface, there is so much more to be seen. Park’s production designs and clever symbols (Hideko lives in a home that’s part Japanese, like the colonial masters from whom, like her, the Koreans sought liberation, and part Western, like the story’s creator) are so overwhelming, that I’m sure I must have missed, and will now hopefully see with new eyes more of the director’s multiple signs and suggestions, all guiding (seducing?) me to his final vision of love, deception, seduction and money…
life’s four verities?
THE HANDMAIDEN. Dir: Park Chan-woo (“Stoker”, “Oldboy”). With: Kim Min-Lee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Tae-ri. Writer: Sarah Waters (from her novel), Jeong Seo-kyeong & Park Chan-woo. Production designer: Ryu Seong-hie. Cinematographer: Chung Chung-hoon