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Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you, we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published every Wednesday and Friday, and we plan on reviewing one movie a day. That makes things easier for us procrastinators! We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!
“The Handmaiden” (Released in 2016; watched by us on October 26, 2020)
A psychological thriller by Park Chan-wook. We watched it on Amazon Prime!
Content warning: Sexual abuse
I am not sure what I was expecting when I tuned in to “The Handmaiden,” but it certainly was not the movie I ended up watching.
“The Handmaiden” feels, at points, like a vengeful Frankenstein’s Monster. This movie is like a cinematic frappe of “Parasite,” “The Favorite” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” with just a tiny pinch of “Fifty Shades of Grey” for … uh, flavor. It is simultaneously uncomfortable, horrifying and funny, and for this reason “The Handmaiden” is very hard to define. Yet, I cannot deny that it is consistently masterful in its craft.
This romance/thriller takes place in Japanese-occupied Korea. A conman under the pseudonym “Count Fujiwara” sets his sights on the Kozucki Estate, which is run by a wicked Korean man who assisted the Japanese in taking over his country for personal gain. Fujiwara’s plan is simple: seduce and marry the heiress, Lady Hideko, then commit her to an insane asylum to claim the inheritance for his own. He hires a pickpocket, Sook-hee, to act as Hideko’s handmaiden, in order to further his chances of wooing her. It is a 4D chess move… except Sook-hee and Hideko are the ones who fall in love instead. OOPSIES!
The premise alone does not even begin to cover “The Handmaiden.” This is one wack movie. There are so many twists and turns to this film, and the audience is constantly forced to reassess what previous scenes even meant — nobody can possibly predict what this movie will do next. A lot of the film’s structure and plot is based off of the 2002 novel, “The Fingersmith,” and this inherited craziness is a large part of what makes “The Handmaiden” so fun. Watching this movie is like being enveloped in some narrative tornado, and I had no choice but to turn my brain off and go along with the ride.
When I do go into critic mode, however, I am far from disappointed. The cinematography and editing are consistently spot-on, creating so many unique shots out of comparatively very little. The vast majority of “The Handmaiden” takes place inside one manor. In that respect, the film is similar to “Parasite,” leading me to believe it might have been an inspiration — but this one setting seems to take on new life with every scene. The Kozucki Manor is depicted as a lush, beautiful, though overwhelming world of riches in the eyes of poor pickpocket Sook-hee — the lifestyle of these nobles is affluent and the estate is seemingly limitless. Then, the Manor becomes a dark, claustrophobic prison in the eyes of Hideko — the walls are closing in, the shadows blot out any lights and the otherwise beautiful views in the horizon become mere reminders of what she can never experience.
The beating heart of “The Handmaiden” is the relationship — and the contrasts — between the stories of Sook-hee and Hideko. This movie tells a lot through its filmmaking alone, which is to be celebrated, but the writing is spot-on too. Their romance is, on the surface, practically straight out of a Disney movie (well, a very much R-rated one). Though the timeline is left a bit ambiguous, one can assume all it takes is a few months for the leading couple to decide they ought to be together forever. But, through how this movie is framed, I truly believed it. Not only are their character traits and motivations well fleshed out enough so that their relationship makes sense (circumventing a lot of issues I have with movie romances) but, by essentially reliving this sequence of events twice through different perspectives, these fewer shared moments feel all the more impactful.
This is a very physical romance, yes. I was surprised to find perhaps some of the most intimate — and, uh, let’s call it non-conservative — sex scenes cinema has ever depicted, and since cinema eroticism is not exactly my kind of thing, I was… um, er… ok. Be warned, dear reader: Do not watch this movie with your parents.
Trust me. Don’t do that. Take it from me. If you, hypothetically, have a Korean mother, and you, theoretically, like sharing your movies with her, you are going to want to skip this one. Do not watch this movie with your parents. I told you that, and theoretically, it would have been nice if somebody told me.
With that said, I will assure you, reader, that there is plenty of substance to pair with the spiciness. Nay, I will guarantee the reader that “The Handmaiden” is perhaps one of the best movies to come from the previous decade. This is some of the best filmmaking, and the best storytelling, that I have seen in a long while, and I am always ecstatic to give such a title to a film from my birthplace.
“The Handmaiden” is a historical-romance-erotic-arthouse-feminist film (or something like that) from the Korean auteur Park Chan-wook. As you might be able to tell, “The Handmaiden” is a lot to process. And I think that there are a lot of good reasons that this movie might not work for everyone. But it’s ultimately an excellent film that you should watch — just not in front of anyone else. Seriously. You’ll have a lot of weird questions to answer.
Park Chan-wook’s film is notable for a few reasons, but I’ll start with the easiest one: The plot is incredibly well-woven. The movie’s most basic premise is that of a type of heist: A conman and thief named Count Fujiwara asks a young Korean woman named Sook-hee to enter the employ of Kouzuki, a native Korean who helped the Japanese take over. Trapped in Kouzuki’s house is the Japanese heiress Hideko, who he plans on marrying in order to gain access to her considerable finances to fund his book collection. Sook-hee’s job is to work as Hideko’s handmaiden, and her task is to convince Hideko to fall in love with Count Fujiwara so they can elope, thus allowing the count to gain access to Hideko’s money. They plan to deposit Hideko in a mental asylum after they’ve won the deeds to her wealth.
But from here, the heist starts to develop in unpredictable ways. For starters, Sook-hee and Hideko start to fall in love. And from there it gets even more complicated. There’s plot twist after plot twist, betrayal after betrayal. I want to be a little opaque here — a pretty significant degree of the joy of watching this movie is the sensation of having Park Chan-wook ripping the rug out from beneath you every time you think you’ve found your footing. Events of the story are told and then retold as you have new information to recontextualize them. It’s an incredibly effective gambit. As I said in an earlier review, a good twist doesn’t just change the plot: It changes the narrative of the movie, changing the way we conceive of characters and the way we interpret the themes. And boy, oh boy, does “The Handmaiden” nail every twist in its not-inconsiderable runtime, repeatedly changing the way we look at characters while never really changing who the characters are. It’s a remarkable sleight of hand. Suffice to say, when (spoiler, but sort of an obvious one) the star-crossed lovers eventually find their way to freedom, it feels as though you and the pair have all run a marathon through concertina wire.
And now, most importantly, the narrative of this story. It’s hard to describe this adequately, and I think a lot of the way that a viewer will react to this movie depends on the way that they respond to the graphic way the movie is filmed. But broadly speaking, “The Handmaiden” is about the two leads falling in love and reclaiming their autonomy and sexuality from a society that has stripped it from them. The rich, spacious manor that Kouzuki has trapped Hideko in is filmed claustrophobically. And both Sook-hee and Hideko are essentially pawns in a game between two rapacious men who try to control Hideko in order to gain access to her fortune.
Both of these men abuse Hideko repeatedly. I should warn the viewer: This movie is at times incredibly uncomfortable to watch. Hideko’s torment at the hands of her captor(s) appears to be Park Chan-wook’s attempt to depict the ways in which women’s sexualities are systematically stripped from them and turned into objects of male fantasy. This is obviously a worthwhile topic to discuss, but while I was watching the movie I couldn’t help but wonder if “The Handmaiden” was counterproductive in achieving its aims. Park Chan-wook films graphic sex between our two female protagonists with a pornographic framing that made me put my head into my hands and pray that my parents didn’t walk downstairs. And when Hideko is forced to (spoiler) read erotic fiction to a room full of older men, Park Chan-wook makes sure to make the scene just as excruciatingly uncomfortable as you feel it should be. When this movie was at its most graphic, it was difficult for me to wonder if I wasn’t myself partaking in the type of voyeurism that the story appears to be criticizing. At what point is the graphic depiction of men co-opting women’s sexuality itself an example of men co-opting women’s sexuality? And there’s also a lot of issues of social class in this film, with colonization and classism playing key narrative roles. How do we deal with these?
To be honest, I wasn’t sure. But I read some reviews that started to clarify some stuff for me, including one particularly instructive one from an online feminist film journal. The romance between the two leads is depicted almost as a tonic to these societal ills. Where they were trapped, Hideko and Sook-hee are able to find freedom with each other. It’s difficult for me to go into too much detail without spoiling some genuinely arresting scenes, but as the third act unfolds, Park Chan-wook shows us a few key scenes of our two leads seizing back their autonomy by reappropriating a sexuality that was stolen from them. I think the success of this movie for you, dear reader, will entirely depend on the degree to which the third act convinces you of this idea. It was convincing for me, but I think if Park Chan-wook was any less successful in these pivotal scenes, it would have rendered “The Handmaiden” vulnerable to the criticism of the male gaze that it itself presents. So I think “The Handmaiden” is an incredible film and is a pretty good example of feminist filmmaking by a male director. It’s probably not for everyone. But I ultimately think that Park Chan-wook’s sensual, graphic filmmaking ends up manipulating the audience’s emotions in a fascinating and clever way. I would recommend that you watch this, but absolutely do not watch this in a room that other people might walk into — you will have far too many questions to answer. If you’re interested in more movies about feminism and queer romance, you can’t do much better than “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which is one of the finest movies that I have ever watched of any genre.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan ‘at’ stanford.edu.