The Handmaiden (2016)

Directed by Park Chan-wook

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The Handmaiden is hyper-everything.  It’s a Tarantino-esque revenge thriller told from multiple points of view with several characters conning each other.  The film is neatly broken up into three parts, each one defined by a particular scheme which becomes further undermined until the end, like a series of dominoes falling.

It’s the story of a count, a lady and her handmaiden.  Count Fujiwara tells Sook-Hee that he wants to use her to spy on the woman who will become his wife, Lady Hideko, so that he might more easily steal her family fortune.

Even before the first misdirection, in which we learn that Sook-Hee has been the true target of the deception all along, the movie is tortuous and riveting.  Lady Hideko comes across as painfully naive, and Sook-Hee takes to her like a mother to a child.  That she continues to persist in what she thinks is the con is all the more heartbreaking as she’s so clearly drawn to protect Lady Hideko.

The plan we’re presented with concludes with Lady Hideko being sent to a “madhouse,” though things take a turn when they mistake Sook-Hee for Lady Hideko, and she herself is institutionalized.  This is when we rewind for the first time, glimpsing how the plan between Count Fujiwara and Lady Hideko was orchestrated to grant Lady Hideko her freedom and put Sook-Hee in the madhouse in her place.

The story builds and unravels in ways to decontextualize things we have already seen, but that magic trickery of a direction doesn’t detract from the emotional story.  Even as we remix our way through the narrative and learn that some of what we believed was sincere was actually a plan to deceive another (and the audience), the emotional through line tracks, which is quite amazing.

It builds to a final plot to deceive, but once that unfolds we are mostly caught up with the plan at hand, meaning we are a step ahead of the person being deceived, rather than to be deceived just as he or she is.

And all of this, I suppose, wouldn’t work so well were it not for our emotional investment.  This isn’t just a gimmicky B movie but something operatic, grand, tragic and pretty messed up.  There are sex scenes that must have driven the censors crazy and moments of violence that would make squeamish even the most desensitized viewers.  If some movies are voyeuristic, playing up the notion that we get to spy on characters who don’t acknowledge us, this one feels very much made for the people watching at home.

It’s not that the characters reference the camera or the fourth wall but that there’s something performative about the whole thing, even in moments of intense intimacy such as the first time we see Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko in bed together.  They are almost always performing for each other, in a way commenting on the nature of “performing” for the camera and the audience.  Each character is playing a role within the text, and by the end they will strip away those roles and get to the heart of their respective characters.

The movie is vibrant and painterly, surreal and over the top.  It feels almost animated, and it’s certainly richly textured.  So much time is spent on close ups of not just actors’ faces but the things that bind them.  Whether it be corsets, dresses, buttons, gowns, etc. we see it with such proximity, we can feel the popping buttons and the straining corset.  It’s impossible not to feel at times kind of suffocated, and this texture helps illustrate the shackles which Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko will break free from by the end of the film.

I guess it does boil down to a revenge film in the end, but it never felt as simple as that.  After all the “revenge” is just the latest in a series of cons, with each character taking turns leading the charade.  Their revenge doesn’t feel so much to be against one person but against a much bigger system, both societal and otherwise.  Sook-Hee, as the handmaiden is most clearly in a position of service, but so too is Lady Hideko.  In one of the most telling moments of the film Sook-Hee explains in voice over how Lady Hideko, or any lady at all, is little more than a doll to be dressed, her doll.

The pedestal on which Lady Hideko stands is a prison.  She has nowhere to go, she’s incredibly lonely, and she’s just there to be pushed this way and that, to be dressed, caressed and locked away.  It’s Sook-Hee then who finds the most pleasure in her role, the one with some agency who gets to put Lady Hideko together and to take some pride in the way she looks and behaves.

So these restricting forces are made almost painfully clear at the start so that by the end they will be obliterated in a pretty exhilarating fashion.

Up Next: Funny Ha Ha (2002), The Art of Self-Defense (2019), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)/Dave (1993)

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