I purposely went into The Handmaiden cold. I watched the trailer ten times before the movie (and twenty times since) but other than that I only knew the film was about a con man trying to con a young duchess, and that it was a Park Chan-Wook film (of Oldboy fame, and thus was expecting a movie like that). I’m extremely pleased that I went in with next to no information, and if you’d like to do the same, I’d suggest you stop reading now.
My only real expectation was that The Handmaiden would be like Oldboy, but the two films have only two things in common: exceptional craft, and a willingness to look at some of the perversity and weirdness in humanity without flinching. The Handmaiden, while a tricky and occasionally sinister feeling film, is neither as violent nor as horrific as Park’s most well-known work.
Instead Park delivers an intricate and exciting heist movie as well as a surprisingly honest and intimate love story. As the film begins the titular handmaiden, “Tomako” (Kim Tae-ri), is ripped away from a family and home and sent to live with a Korean man, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-Woong), trying desperately to pass as Japanese. Kouzuki lives in an expansive manor set far back in the woods with his niece Hideko (Kim Min-Hee), of proper Japanese descent. As Tomako leaves she hands a baby to her sister, who shouts through tears: “It should be me going!”
Only there is no Tomako. An immediate flashback recontextualizes the first scene: Tomako is an invention of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo), who plans to seduce and elope with Hideko, stealing her (and her considerable fortune) away from her lecherous uncle. Sook-hee, a young girl living in a Fagin-style home for orphan thieves, is meant to be his girl on the inside, convincing Hideko to fall for the conman pretending to be a Count.
The baby assumed to be Sook-hee’s is an orphan that the Fagin figure plans to sell to the occupying Japanese. And the woman Sook-hee hands it to is not her sister; she is a fellow con woman who wants to be Fujiwara’s girl on the inside so that she can get a bigger cut of the pay out. “It should be me going!” she shouts, in reference to the job, not anguish over losing Sook-hee. Surprise! What you thought you knew, you know no longer.
The feeling that you’re missing “twists” such as their one is pervasive throughout the first hour of the movie. The plot is so straight forward the viewer has the creeping suspicion that they’re missing something. For a conwoman Sook-hee is none too bright, and pieces fall into place strangely, with threats clearly looming in secret rooms and behind the enigmatic faces of Fujiwara, Kouzuki, and the seemingly innocent Hideko. After watching the first scene, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, and boy does it. The film continuously offers the viewers new understandings of pervious material, revealing missing pieces of scenes that we’ve already seen, and occasionally plugging in years worth of backstory.
I’ll resurrect a talking point from our debate on Moonlight, and get the final word now that Sam isn’t around (and so win by default). When I argued that the “plot” of Moonlight didn’t work for me Sam said I was overvaluing narrative. I’d argue that, if anything, plot is undervalued in anything from blockbusters to “art pieces”. A tightly written plot is nothing to be sneezed at, and The Handmaiden has a meticulously written plot by necessity of the con job twisty psychological thriller genre. But Sam was right in saying that plot cannot survive on its own. A movie’s (all art’s?) job is to create a feeling and response in the audience, and while plot is a valuable tool Sam was right in pointing to atmosphere as another. I’d like to add world and character as a second and third. Without these things the best plot can fail miserably, and vice versa.
The Handmaiden’s atmosphere is essential. It feels gothic, vampiric, ethereal and ghostly. The first time we see Lady Hideko she is having a bad dream about her aunt who hanged herself in a tree in the yard. The movie is dizzying and disorienting, with strange time jumps, bodiless voices, strange levers and gates, a snake statue shown so fast as to seem to be real, shifting and turning POVs, and rolling blackouts. The mansion’s main stairwell is accompanied by terrifying monstrous paintings of a dead woman and a little girl. Sook-hee can feel them watching her, and the camera lingers on them often as lanterns goes by, so that the paint appears to slither in the flame’s light. We know early on that nothing is as it seems, and that things are hidden as ghosts in the shadows.
The atmosphere bleeds nicely into the world too. The film is quietly a period piece, set in a Korea occupied by Japan preceding WW2. While underplayed, it serves as a motivation for all the characters. Hideko, the only naturally born Japanese character, is in turn hated and coveted by all three Korean born characters. Kouzuki calls Korea a soft land, and is attempting to leave it and his nationality behind, something that disgusts the other Korean characters, all of who view it as a betrayal. Even Sook-hee and Fujiwara are influenced by the occupation in subtle ways – they both come from poor backgrounds, and are clearly more willing to bilk Hideko of her inheritance than they might be if she were not an “occupier”. Japanese soldiers are seen a number of times throughout the film, but it’s clear that an oppressed Korea is on everyone’s minds.
And finally character, which is distinct from plot though the two reveal and generate each other. One of the things I think about a lot in regards to character, whenever I read or watch anything, is dignity. Which simply means to me, is this character granted a full range of emotion, are they sometimes good and sometimes bad, do they get granted a real life? They can be a horrific person and still be granted great dignity. The “villain” in The Handmaiden is evil incarnate, but he still has moments of sadness, weakness, laughter, desire, anger, etc. He still wants something, he still feels betrayed and hurt.
The greatest relationship between Oldboy and The Handmaiden is Park’s willingness to look into the human soul and say “hey, that’s wired a bit weird, but no worries”. None of the characters of The Handmaiden are without their flaws. None of them are without motivation. None of them are unwilling to betray any other character, but none of them are willing to do it without remorse. None of them go the whole film without eliciting a laugh, and none of them go the whole film without us pitying them. This is an essential element to story that I think most films miss even more often than a good plot. Think of most con/heist movies, or most love stories. In a heist movie, the characters are uniformly witty and smart. The only traits are smart or smarter. In a love story, the characters just have to get their priorities right. None of them seem intrinsically broken, intrinsically off, and if a character is, the filmmaker doesn’t usually film it in a way that says: “that’s okay, humans are kind of messed up, and that’s fine”. But humans are sort of messed up. That’s what we hate about each other, and that’s what we love about each other. To convey that through film, to offer that empathy for all your broken characters and to get your audience to extend the same empathy, is perhaps the greatest trick in film making, and makes for my favorite movies. The Handmaiden pulls it off without ever feeling the need to look away.
The Handmaiden gets nine out of ten of my fingers giving thumbs up (and not ten only because what if something else this year really blows me away).
The period piece means exquisite costume work. Worth a look all on it’s own. The cinematography is also absolutely outstanding in this film, upping nearly every element discussed above. This film seriously fires on all cylinders.
I discussed it briefly, but this film was shockingly funny. I wasn’t expecting it at all, but there was an enormous amount of laughter throughout the theater. My personal favorite was when a character is stressed and stuffs three cigarettes into his mouth instead of just one (and it even serves a story purpose!) The actors display enormous range, and there is seriously no beat that they miss, dramatic or comedic.
The movie celebrates lgbt+ characters as well as female characters, and gives them agency and purpose and drive and celebrates them! There are not enough movies that do that. That is another reason you should give this film your money!
Go see this movie!