In Japanese-occupied 1930s Korea, a Korean con man (Jung-woo Ha) and a Korean pickpocket (Tae-ri Kim) conspire to steal the fortune of sheltered Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). He will pose as “Count Fujiwara” and woo Hideko, while thief Sook-Hee will become Hideko’s shy new maid “Tamako” and convince the lady to run off with the handsome and romantic count instead of marrying her hideous widowed uncle-by-marriage Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), who of course is (also) only after his niece’s money. The plan is, after “Fujiwara” and Hideko are wed, he will have her declared insane and committed to an asylum — because that’s a thing that a man could do — and her money will be his to split with Sook-Hee. Easy peasy, no?
Not at all, natch. What begins as a lush costume drama soon morphs into a morass of intrigue, shifting alliances, and twisted revenge, one that changes perspectives among the characters in ways that keep us in exquisite suspense about who to trust, who to root for, and who even to like. It’s a lot of delicious, pulpy fun. But The Handmaiden has one big problem that nearly ruined it for me. It’s a problem that has such long roots in film that we could almost deem it traditional, but it’s not one that cinema can get away with any longer. And for a movie like this one, which clearly intends itself to be taken seriously on its own terms even amidst its sensationalism, it’s almost unforgivable.
It’s like this: By moving, in place and time, the action of Sarah Waters’s 2002 Victorian England-set novel Fingersmith, legendary South Korean director Chan-wook Park — with a screenplay assist from Seo-kyeong Jeong — has layered the rage of the colonized atop the classism of the original story (which probably has more resonance for Asian audiences than for Western ones). But sexism remains the key vector of The Handmaiden’s cultural commentary… and that of its biggest problem.
The intrigue and shifting alliances grow out of the erotic charge that sparks between Hideko and “Tamako” from the moment they meet, and Sook-Hee’s resolve about the scam gets thrown into doubt: how can she go through with it when she is not only powerfully sexually attracted to Hideko but also falling in love, and Hideko with her? But can Sook-Hee trust Hideko to tell her the truth about the “count”? And so the story pivots to become one about women slyly pushing back against men who would use and abuse them, sexually and psychologically, and how the misogynist culture the women exist in makes it difficult even to count on other women as allies.
Yet Park’s depiction of them is objectifying, demeaning, and far more interested in creating titillating male-gazey soft-core porn than with actually exploring sexuality from a woman’s perspective… and in this case, from a perspective of a female sexuality that has nothing to do with men. Like Blue Is the Warmest Color, The Handmaiden is a lesbian romance that cares most about how lesbians can turn on men. Except this is even worse, because this movie actively undermines its protagonists and their story. One subplot running through The Handmaiden revolves around how Hideko’s uncle has been forcing her to perform a certain sort of sexual titillation for his male guests, how horrific an experience this is for her, and how awful her uncle and his friends are for enjoying her enforced performance … and yet Park is doing much the same thing to his female characters. The filmmaker and his perceived audience are cast as the villains.
It’s difficult to see how Park himself could not appreciate the irony in this (and there is no sense that he does). It’s difficult to see how Park was unaware that his eye is a decidedly unwelcome interloper in a relationship that is overtly about excluding men from the pleasure these two women take in each other. Until male filmmakers can demonstrate that they are able to tell women’s stories ostensibly from women’s perspectives in a way that stands down from the misogynistic expectation that women exist to serve men, perhaps those male filmmakers should stand down from telling such stories.