The Handmaiden (2016)

The Handmaiden (아가씨, or Agassi, which literally means ‘Lady’) is the tenth feature film by one of the most acclaimed South Korean directors, Park Chan-wook (박찬욱), who is famous for his brand of highly sophisticated aesthetic representation of hyper-violence, darkly complex human psychology and deviant sexuality. Whilst yours truly is not well-versed in the history and the development of South Korean cinema, it is clear that Park Chan-wook has significantly contributed to the international standing of South Korean cinema. His ‘Vengeance Trilogy’, which is spearheaded by his career making breakout hit, Joint Security Area (공동경비구역, 2000), followed by Oldboy (올드보이, 2003) and Lady Vengence (친절한 금자씨, 2005), brought international attention to a group of young South Korean directors, resulting in the critical recognition of what one might now call South Korean New Wave cinema. Quentin Tarantino is an avowed admirer of Park, and famously pushed Oldboy for the Palm d’Or in 2004. Despite missing the coveted prize, Park became the runner-up with the Grand Prix, and has since collected many prestigious accolades such as Alfred Bauer Prize (2007 Berlin International Film Festival) and Golden Bear for Short Film (2011 Berlin International Film Festival) to name a few.

Whilst Park has made a career for himself with his aesthetics of hyper-violence, which might superficially put him in comparison with Takeshi Kitano, or even Nicolas Winding Refn whose philosophy of Gewalt is rarely discussed, the South Korean auteur has made a significant creative shift in recent years: he now counts the dark complexity of human psychology as the main subject of his cinema. This aesthetic maturity was first announced with his powerfully unsettling ‘vampire’ film, Thirst (박쥐, 2009), and continued to develop with his first English language film, Stoker (2013). Yet, his latest effort has seen him boldly moving into yet another territory. It is an interesting new development for Park: he has never called upon his deviant aesthetic philosophy as a means to advance his critical contention. Whilst Park’s knack for elegantly representing dark sensuality and the opacity of human psyche still graces the screen, yet, in The Handmaiden, his aesthetics is there to serve a clear purpose: every detail of lavish cinematography is directed to advance a singular critical point. Naturally it is too early to tell whether this marks the beginning of a sustainable new development or otherwise. Nonetheless, by virtue of hypnotising performances by Kim Min-hee (김민희, Lady Hideko), Kim Tae-ri (김태리, Sook-hee) and Moon So-ri (문소리, Lady Hideko’s aunt), The Handmaiden unexpectedly emerges as an anti-patriarchal cinema of exceptional quality.

The Handmaiden is based on a British crime novel, Fingersmith (2002), by a Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Park took a considerable creative liberty in the process of adaptation: in addition to some significant changes to the plot, Park has transferred the background of the story from the Victorian England of the original novel to the 20th century Korea under Japanese occupation (This change of setting has provided Park an opportunity to break from the orthodox representation of modern Korean-Japanese relation in South Korean culture and media. I wish to elaborate more on this subject later). The story is told from multiple perspectives in a three-part narrative as in the original novel with some notable plot changes in order to bring a focus on the singularly most important aspect of the tale, that is, the unbreakable bond between two female protagonists, Lady Hideko and her chambermaid, Sook-hee. The Handmaiden begins its storytelling in the Part I from the perspective of Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a skilled pickpocket raised in a ‘den of thieves’. She is sent to the estate of a Japanese magnate, Kouzuki, to assist a shady scheme concocted by a Korean confidence artist (Ha Jung-woo). According to the plan, the con-man presents himself as a Japanese noble, approaches the 'hapless Japanese heiress of great fortune', Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), seduces her, elopes with her to Japan, marries her only to commit her to a secure mental institution, sells off her inheritance and enriches himself. In return for her service Sook-hee would be given her share of profit. To this end, the con-artist presents himself as a Japanese noble, Count Fujiwara, and, after ridding of Lady Hideko’s chambermaid, he promptly recommends Sook-hee as the replacement and successfully infiltrate his target’s inner most circle: Sook-hee, called by her Japanese name ‘Tamako’, would aid the con-artist’s scheme as Lady Hideko’s entrusted companion. Yet, Sook-hee soon realises that things are going to be far more complicated than she initially assumed: she is flummoxed by Lady Hideko’s beauty at the first sight. The closer she becomes to Hideko, the harder it becomes for Sook-hee to suppress her smouldering passion toward her innocent ‘victim’.

Park demonstrates a highly sophisticated handling of a complex plot with many unexpected twists and turns. If one struggles to keep up with the Part I, which offers an absolute shocker as it closes, one must brace oneself for further delights. Park’s navigation of a complex narrative is always at ease, smoothing over any strains one might feel by following dramatic twists and turns as they unfold. Whilst being both structurally and psychologically quite intricate, The Handmaiden never present a moment of incomprehension: Park’s command of mise-en-scnène is such that one would gleefully follow him into every dark corner wherein macabre secrets would take one by surprise despite one’s anticipations. Upon seeing this film, it makes sense that Park was considered as one of the potential directors of the feature film adaptation of a le Carré classic, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, although I consider Tomas Alfredson the ideal choice for the project due to the Swede’s exceptional grasp of existential isolation, the ability to extract the affective undercurrent of any given story and his courage to commit to it at all cost. Still, Park is second to none when it comes to the sophisticated dramatisation of obscure human psyche. Although the South Korean, with his brand of smouldering sensuality and aestheticism, would be a difficult fit for George Smiley’s world, this acknowledgement is not a rebuke to Park’s talent and skill.

True to his form, Park makes it look easy by skilfully negotiating the layers and nuances of the three-part narrative. This impression serves as the evidence of Park’s directorial accomplishment: Park strikes a perfect balance between embracing the complexity without losing sight of its main critical contention, and being singularly focused on the Leitmotiv without becoming reductive. This is clearly shown in the manner in which Park handles some of the most sticky elements of the story. Take the historical backdrop of the movie: modern Korean-Japanese relation has been fraught with tension due to diabolical Japanese occupation of Korean Peninsula and Japan’s subsequent lack of sincerity in acknowledging its guilt. Yet, surprisingly, Park’s narrative moves through this period of great suffering rather light-footedly. Whilst the presence of frightening evil is unmistakably evident, the malice only lurks behind the scenes as metaphors instead of dictating them. The drama unfolds within a confinement of Lady Hideko’s uncle's enormous estate, and the war and the criminal activities of Japanese occupational force are not even mentioned. The narrative demonstrates a kind of lightness exemplified by a number of American heist movies such as Ocean’s Eleven, and, as a result, the audience is completely insulated from the great sufferings that traumatised Korean Geist. This is a shocking break from a convention which still dictates the terms in which Korea-Japanese relation is represented in Park’s native South Korea: given the 35 long years of brutal colonisation of Korean Peninsula suffered by the hands of Japanese, Park’s move should have been the surest way to commit a career suicide.

Yet, this is perhaps the tamest element of Park’s directorial decision: Park's adaptation of Waters' story renders no one as an innocent victim. In The Handmaiden, the majority of scheming ‘crooks’ are of Korean origin. Lady Hideko’s uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woon), is an ambitious Korean native who was formerly an interpreter for the Japanese occupation force. He bribes his way into the inner circle of the occupation army, helps the annexation of Korean Peninsula to Japan and is financially awarded for his 'duty'. He becomes a naturalised Japanese citizen, marries an impoverished Japanese noble woman, sends her off to a secure mental institution and settles into the vast estate in the country he has betrayed. He becomes one of the richest men in Korea, collects rare books and hosts auctions of choice titles at his estate. Park shocks us by his treatment of war-time moral corruption in Korea: Kouzuki is not alone in regard to the brutally pragmatic acceptance of Japanese occupation. The con-artist shows no shame in masquerading as a Japanese nobleman, and none of his collaborators, including Sook-hee, questions such a tactic. Korean maids at Kouzuki’s estate are swooned by the presence of a young and handsome ‘Japanese’ and gleefully allow him to pick ‘law-hanging’ fruits as he pleases. One might struggle to come to terms with all the corruptions, still there is yet another, and far greater, upset: Sook-hee’s family has been trafficking Korean orphans to Japan for profit. Whilst the collusions enacted in The Handmaiden are disturbing in themselves, the manner in which they are dramatised is most unsettling: they are documented as if such betrayals are 'business as usual' under the colonial rule. Such a representation of Korean collusion with Japanese must be intensely controversial. Yet, as far as I can see, The Handmaiden has been well received in South Korea, garnering numerous prestigious awards. Whilst I am in no position to explain the reasons for the lack of backlash in Park’s native South Korea, it is clear that, despite the fact that The Handmaiden is a fiction, hence not a representative case of Korean attitude toward Japanese occupation, Park’s atypical representation of the complex Korea-Japan relation during the occupation breaks the mould. It certainly helps the audience to focus on the drama between the Lady, the crook and the accomplice. Furthermore, by finding the darkness within his fellow Koreans, Park presents the opaqueness and the complexity of human psyche significantly better than the conventional narrative which unilaterally serves the authoritarian South Korean media policies (To have a quick overview of the tension between cinema and politics in South Korea, please read an excellent article by Matt Kim). In this light, perhaps Park’s treatment of the period is not at all about the relation between South Korea and Japan: it must be all about his reaction to the intricacy of South Korean culture and politics.

This is not to say that Park is easy on Japanese. Whilst the evil of Japanese occupation is hardly present on the screen, Park has found a way to treat ‘Japanese’ as a fatally corrupting influence. To this end, Park choses Japanese language, rather than Japanese people, as the host of corrupting disease: Better the command of Japanese, more corrupted one becomes. Whilst this is a rather subtle way of representing diabolical nature of Japanese rule, its dramatic effect is unmistakable. For instance, one of the most striking directorial decisions made by Park for The Handmaiden is the manner of Lady Hideko’s speech: she hardly speaks Japanese. Despite the fact that every servant speaks Japanese fluently, Lady Hideko communicates her wishes with flawless Korean. Inquired by Sook-hee of her preference, she simply states that she is wary of Japanese due to her demanding daily reading session in Japanese under the strict supervision of her bibliophile uncle. It turns out that her ‘reading session’ has been nothing but a practice of perversion. Kouzuki forces Hideko to practice a dramatic reading of pornographic writings in order for him to stage Hideko’s ‘reading’ in front of the prospective buyers of his prized title on auction. On such occasions, Hideko is dressed in a beautiful Japanese kimono to intensify the pervert male gaze set upon her during the dramatic presentation of explicit materials. It is a decadent theatrical staged by a Korean collaborator for the amusement of the corrupt Japanese ruling class for whom the bloodsheds on the battle fields and the streets are remote events occurring in some possible world. Kouzuki forces his niece with no sexual experience to dramatise a sexual act of the most deviant kind in letters in front of ‘gentlemen’ to serve his ultimate purpose: selling off his ‘rare’ books with prohibitive prices. If the above description defies our comprehension, there is one more piece to complete this extraordinary abomination: Kouzuki has no intention of parting with his collection; he instead produces and sells the forgeries of his rare titles. By the time we learn the exact nature of the darkness residing in the house of Kouzuki, we will no longer question the reasons why Hideko detests Japanese language: it is the representation of an incredibly sadistic and corrupt Form of Life. Japanese speaking in The Handmaiden is thus a plague: it corrupts anyone who learns to speak it.

This attitude toward Japanese language is very much in line with the official South Korean policy: Japanese is a forbidden language, and the broadcasting of Japanese media such as music and cinema is legally prohibited. In The Handmaiden, it is clear that, better a character’s command of Japanese, worse her/their/his moral corruption. Just as Kouzuki’s status as a wealthy ‘Japanese’ magnate signifies his fall, the con-man boasts an excellent Japanese both in speech and in writing. If this is all there is, Park’s treatment of the historical context in which the story unfolds is correct if not uncharacteristically conventional for this Korean maverick. Fortunately Park has seen further than the most. Japanese speech is not only the language of Imperial Japan; it is the language of patriarchy for which there is only one mode of existence: seeking to quench an insatiable thirst for domination. In this light, Park’s decision to present two arch villains as Koreans makes sense: regardless their respective origins, they are themselves patriarchies who seek to establish, extend and safeguard their domination over the Other by force and/or deceit. They single-mindedly seek to gain greater access to power despite the fact that they have no use of power except extending its reach. The gender specific function of the speech in this film is further represented by Sook-hee’s linguistic underdevelopment: despite speaking good Japanese, ‘Tamako’ is illiterate. Not only is she unable to read the letter of recommendation written for her in Japanese by ‘Count Fujiwara’, she cannot even read or write her own name in the Hangul. Yet, her alienation from 'respectable' Forms of Life paradoxically turns out to be the sign of human decency: Sook-hee eventually establishes a true companionship with Hideko, and two women jointly turn the schemes of male sadists to their heads. It is important to note the gender line drawn between Japanese and Korean: in The Handmaiden Japanese is the language of patriarchies and Korean is mostly spoken by our female protagonists, Hideko and Sook-hee. Hence, in Park’s hand, the tension between two respective languages, that is, Korean and Japanese, is not only functioning as a reminder of a grave historical/political point of contention: it also functions as a theoretical device to probe gender inequality at a metaphorical level. This is where Park finds himself in a company of two English: Alex Garland and Virginia Woolf. As in The Three Guineas, Park makes a strong and clear political statement with his treatment of languages in The Handmaiden: the destructive force we all suffer has a gender, that is, male gender, hence its language of choice must be Japanese in The Handmaiden. As in Ex Machina, two women stage the fall of patriarchy thorough their secret communications. Whilst the rebellion in Ex Machina results in Ava’s liberation and Kyōko’s destruction, hence only half successful, in The Handmaiden both women establish their agency for the first time and forge an unbreakable bond. Like in Orlando, there is a clear embracement of gender fluidity in The Handmaiden: at one point, Hideko takes over the con-man's identity and presents herself as a handsome 'Japanese' nobleman. And, importantly, the language they speak is Korean, the language of the oppressed in this specific context.

Hence The Handmaiden emerges quite unexpectedly as an anti-patriarchal cinema (I have already written about the reasons why someone who has never been discriminated as a woman cannot be a feminist yet still be able to identify oneself as an anti-patriarchal critic in my article on Ex Machina), and it is an excellent one at that. Kim Min-hee (Lady Hideko) and Kim Tae-ri (Sook-hee/Tamako) deliver spellbinding performance throughout the duration of the film. Kim Tae-ri’s acting in the Part I is absolutely mesmerising in the moments of her infatuation with Lady Hideko. When Sook-hee bursts out and tells grieving Hideko, whose mother died of giving her birth, that no child should be blamed for the death of the mother, Kim Tae-ri creates one of the most emotionally satisfying moment of the film. In the Second Part, it is Kim Min-hee’s turn to hypnotise the audience. Kim Min-hee commands the screen so absolutely that the audience should be left with no doubt whatsoever who would come on top of this multi-layered drama of deceits and betrayals. Kim Min-hee’s performance in a scene wherein Hideko confronts Sook-hee and demands to tell her true feeling about Hideko's impending marriage to the Japanese noble undoubtedly produces the most emotionally absorbing moment of the entire cinema. This scene also prepares the moment of revelation about the nature of The Handmaiden: Park methodically maintains a certain affective distance from the unfolding dramas throughout the duration of the cinema. This is most clearly pronounced in the scene immediately following the aforementioned confrontation between Hideko and Sook-hee. Having ‘discovered’ that Sook-hee does not love her enough to plead her not to marry a man, Hideko, in her desperation, hangs herself from a tree. Sook-hee comes to a rescue, supports Hideko by legs and confesses her role in the crook's nefarious scheme, violently sobbing in shame. In return, still hanging from a tree with the noose tight around her neck, Hideko reveals that it is in fact Sook-hee who is tricked by the scheme designed by Hideko and the con-man. What follows this deeply emotional exchange is a comedy of absurd quality: in rage against the con-man, Sook-hee momentarily let go of Hideko and the Lady nearly dies. It is an interesting way of putting Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (most commonly known as ‘alienation effect’ in the English speaking world) into practice without betraying the spirit of Brecht’s theory. Whilst Park’s reason for creating this effect is not the same with Brecht’s (the South Korean director is not a dialectical materialist), they both succeed in creating a ‘space of reasons’ between the drama and the audience. By preventing the affective absorption of the audience to the drama, they direct the viewers toward critical reflection of the stage or the cinema in question. Unlike Brecht, Park relies on supposedly improper comedic representation of the scenes, yet these comedic moments do produce a proper Verfremdungseffekt: despite initial impressions, it breaks affective connection between the audience to the characters. Then one must ask: What would be Park’s purpose of consistently employing Verfremdungseffekt in The Handmaiden? The answer is: Park has a point to make. His polemic is: a male director cannot speak for women; he can only express his stand against patriarchy. This is precisely the point Park shares with Alex Garland: the director of Ex Machina has been respectfully observing this distinction, as I have discussed in my analysis of his debut feature. Whilst it is hardly possible not to sympathise with female protagonists’ horrifying predicaments and cheer for their defiance, resilience and eventual liberation, Park’s timely comedic intervention keeps a certain affective distance between himself, the audience and the drama.

Whilst both The Handmaiden and Ex Machina may represent the best anti-patriarchal cinema of the early 21st century, they are nonetheless very different films. Ex Machina is a painstakingly constructed slow-burner with suffocatingly oppressive quality: it does not allow a surge of strong emotion in the audience. The only emotion that creeps into our psyche is an icy dread. Garland’s control over the audience’s affection is so complete that not even the eventual liberation of the protagonist, Ava (Alicia Vikander), does not make us feel liberated. Given such an absolute affective alienation, Ex Machina may be considered a master-class of Verfremdungseffekt. The problem with Ex Machina is that Garland follows his method to the detriment of what could have been a masterpiece: Ex Machina eventually and inevitably squeezes life out of cinematic experience despite its exceptional intellectual merit. Garland’s debut feature, notwithstanding the plot, is an ultimate anti-drama in a proper Shakespearian sense of the word. As the great Bard demonstrated, the abjection needs not result in the death of affective reactions. Every moment of Shakespeare’s tragedies stirs our emotion with great urgencies which only a great drama can muster. And this point is duly demonstrated by contemporary cinema. Take Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which is perhaps one of the bleakest movies of the early 21st century. Ryan Gosling’s android protagonist, K, hardly expresses any emotions, yet the dramatic effect of his affective muteness is profound. Consider also Ridley Scott’s arguably the best directorial work to this day, Alien: Covenant. It is one of the darkest films both in terms of mood and philosophy. Yet it even manages to create a moment of an ironically emphatic finale: having successfully deceived the crews, David 8 (Michael Fassbender) reveals his true form, leaves Daniels (Katherine Waterson) in despair and takes control of the ship full of hosts who can be reserved as raw materials for his ‘creation’. With Wagner’s finale from Das Rheingold ascending in the background, David’s triumphal march into a 'new dawn' is at once strangely elating and quite understandably despairing. These movies again prove a point: the affectively oppressive story needs not be anti-dramatic. Unfortunately Alex Garland has not yet mastered this aspect of film making. Ex Machina is theoretically flawless and profoundly thoughtful, yet it fails to produce a single drama in a proper sense throughout the duration of the film.

Despite the light tone with numerous self-consciously awkward comedic moments, Park avoids this pitfall mostly by virtue of the performance of two main casts, that is, Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri. In The Handmaiden, we see an act of love and solidarity between two persons despite Park’s consistent reliance on Verfremdungseffekt by means of one of the most quintessentially South Korean quality: awkwardly self-conscious comedic moments. Furthermore, knowing that a male director has no way of representing a sexual act between two women without committing an injustice, Park resorts to yet another method of achieving Verfremdungseffekt: adopting every worn-out cliché of lesbian pornography filmed to satisfy hereto-male sexuality. He does so in a tongue-in-cheek manner that these scenes become self-conscious parodies of lesbian pornography. Yet, on the strength of two protagonists’ performance, these scenes occasionally induce a positive affective state in the audience: personally I have never seen a pure joy of human connection in sexual action on screen as performed by these two extraordinary actors. As Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Je Tu Il Elle (1974), culminates by capturing the uninhibited lust between two women, these moments of joy in The Handmaiden reminds us that the scenes enacting physical intimacy can be dramatic in a proper sense of the word. In fact, The Handmaiden is full of such dramas: Hideko’s smouldering fury against her male counterparts is as dark and intense as their crookedness, while Sook-hee’s moment of explosive anger against Kouzuki provides one of the most electrifying moments of the film. This improbable balance between the conscious awkwardness and a dramatic dynamism makes The Handmaiden a master-class. The Handmaiden exemplifies what Park Chan-wook has achieved for South Korean cinema: by carefully cultivating the elements of South Korean cinema, he has nonetheless produced a universally representative masterpiece. Hence The Handmaiden should be considered both the landmark of South Korean cinema and of anti-patriarchy film of our time. It is an exercise in cinematic excellence: Park decisively demonstrates that theoretical complexity and philosophical profundity are not mutually exclusive with dramatic dynamism. For this insight, we are all indebted to Park, his cast and team for giving life to such an outstanding project.