1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, a new girl (Sookee) is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress (Hideko) who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her domineering Uncle (Kouzuki). But the maid has a secret. She is a pickpocket recruited by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count to help him seduce the Lady to elope with him, rob her of her fortune, and lock her up in a madhouse. The plan seems to proceed according to plan until Sookee and Hideko discover some unexpected emotions.
You always get a film that comes along and is nothing like what you expected, exceeding your expectations in every way. For me two years ago it was a small Polish film called Ida which was one of the last films I saw that year and it still managed to reach my number 1. Chan-wook Park, acclaimed director of Oldboy returns to cinema after a few mediocre projects such as Thirst and Stoker. The Handmaiden is set in 1930’s Korea during the period of Japanese occupation. This is an ignored part of history that is finally making a comeback in Korea not only from Chan-wook Park but also with Kim Jee-woon and his film Assassination. The film follows a Korean con-man and a thief who try to swindle a Japanese Heiress from her fortune. This features a back drop on the racial conflicts between the Korean and Japanese during this period of time and adds an extra layer to each characters motive. The Handmaiden is split into three parts which is used to give a different perspective on each of the three characters which is the films biggest narrative ploy.
During the films first act we are introduced to the thief Sook-hee who becomes Lady Hideko’s handmaiden to get close to her. Park never plays a simple narrative through his films and that is definitely evident here as the film shifts from plot twist to another but all of them are perfectly calculated to reach the films conclusion. The film is split into three parts and its hard to speak of these parts without spoiling minor details of the films narrative, so if you read on be warned of spoilers. Act 1 follows the handmaiden and how she befriends Lady Hideko whilst pushing her into the arms of the con man Count Fujiwara. Approaching the end of this act I began to wonder what more could happen in the story, what more could the film achieve? However, as we start the second act the story begins exploring Lady Hideko’s childhood and its continues up until she meets Count Fujiwara. During the second act a lot of clues from act 1 start to make sense, little cues start to reveal themselves and that becomes the beauty of The Handmaiden. Its a mystery without trying to be one, the characters always believe they are in the midst of the truth but everyone double crosses each other to reach their final goal. As the audience you become the invisible observer watching the film from a restricted viewpoint. During Act 1 we are restricted to Sook-hee’s perspective so we never really see the film through Lady Hideko or Count Fujiwara eyes. However, in Act 2 we start to see the film through Lady Hideko’s eyes as it assesses her childhood and her involvment with Fujiwara, developing her character. In the films final act all the pieces of the puzzle finally come together and you are left with one final plot twist. Everything falls together in synchronisation but I found it to be an underwhelming conclusion that lacked emotional power. This comes down to what was left in the extended cut because Sook-hee and Lady Hideko’s romance felt rushed and felt purely lustful due to the prominent sex scenes.
On that note the film finishes with another one of a few very graphic and long sex scenes. Here in the films ending I understood the ‘symbolism’ of freedom from patriarchal, opression etc. But it still felt like the sex in this film was gratuitous and all it did was extend Chan-wook Park’s male gaze, which is quite odd during a lesbian romance. However, I can see the message of patriarchy he was trying to display and this male gaze during the sex scenes seemed intentional, making the audience the voyeur intruding on these personal moments. Apart from the audiences role as a invisible observer, the invasion of privacy and voyeuristic themes were always visible throughout the film. Count Fujiwara watched and gazed over Lady Hideko intensely as he tried to assert his dominance on her for his own personal gain. In the first act Sook-Hee even watched over Lady Hideko spying on her to understand her persona. However, outside of the audience the biggest voyeur in this film was Lady Hideko who actually watched through peepholes (Just like in Hitchcock’s Psycho) understanding every character in the film better than they understood her. The camera even pans through the keyhole as we watch the film through Lady Hideko’s perspective learning about the narrative secrets hidden through restricted viewpoints. This comes down to good editing, we are thrown through flashbacks introducing us slowly to each characters ulterior motive as we learn more about them throughout the film.
Outside of the screenplay and the editing the film was a technical wonder in terms of its cinematography, set and costume design. This was not a film that sat down with one colour palette, instead it used all the vibrant colours available. Oldboy was quite a drab film with grey’s and dark blues making quite a cold image on screen. Chan-wook Park experimented in colours during his previous gothic film Stoker. However, The Handmaiden is the perfection of his visual style, mixing in bright vibrant colours with his usual cold palette. Everything technical about this film fell together beautifully, with the set and costume design transporting you back to 1930’s Korea with ease. In every wide shot of different rooms of the mansion you get to see the detail gone into recreating every object in the room. You can tell that each shot and scene was carefully planned with attention to detail. This all aided the cinematography which comes in capturing a film shot mainly in the location of this mansion, but with the right lighting and filming techniques a unique world is created on screen for the audience. The score on the other hand could have been better, It was beautiful in its moments but nothing really stood out. The scenes relied mainly on its visuals because the soundtrack didn’t capture the eeriness of the story.
Now although The Handmaiden follows such a dark path with its story, it still manages to retain some dark comedy in itself. Its a radical feminist film viewed through a male gaze, a male gaze that represents the patriarchal society of 1930’s Korea and the current homophobia in asian counties. We as an audience become a character when watching this film and that direct link between the film and the audience is what makes this such an interactive experience. My opinion on the films themes are purely my own interpretation because it will represent different things to different people. However, I think this is a radical feminist film that even embodies the femme fatale but never throws her into her own demise. I had a few problems with the film such as the score and the gratuitous sex scenes but it still managed to be an amazing and engaging piece of cinema. The acting all round from the entire cast was impressive but I was most impressed with Lady Hideko’s performance who grew from the oppressed woman to the strong and free woman. This is a very odd film with many themes you can’t pick out on your first watch because each layer to the story can be interpreted differently with each viewing.
Final Verdict – 9.0