A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Sex. The verbiage means everything yet nothing at all. It’s the biological construct traditionally required for the beginning of life, a biological construct designed to give human beings pleasure, and a biological construct whose social boundaries are more often than not twisted and confined to a point that goes into the realms of cruel and unusual punishment. Sex is rigidly preferred by a loud segment of society to be between a man and a woman of the same ethnicity after the bonds of marriage have been brokered. Anything outside of that prism is toxic, wanton, and will send the perpetrators to hell. In the rigidity of that prism, sex is inherently tied to the idea of a woman’s virginity being a primary indicator of her virtue. That connection has been profoundly toxic to feminism for millennia because it takes an inherent biological construct and ties a woman’s character to it. If you have sex (which is consensual, just to be clear), that is not an indicator of your character. The only thing it indicates is that you have a natural libido and you acted upon it. If you do not include consent, that is rape (“consensual sex” is a misnomer that gives acceptance to the idea that there is something called “non-consensual sex”, which only provides legitimacy to rape culture). In pre-marital heterosexual sex (not that the individuals in that intercourse have to be strictly heterosexual), the man is touted for the tenacity of his prowess but the woman is confined by labels such as “slut.” It’s a prison that is cruel because it attacks something that is germane to nearly every human’s identity and warps it into something that individuals should be ashamed by. Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith explores female sexuality in the Victorian Era where the boundaries on female sexuality could be symbolized by the corsets that constricted women’s breathing. Park Chan-wook takes that era and transports it to another where women’s sexuality was used for the express pleasure of men because women weren’t seen as beings who, frankly, deserved orgasms of their own. The result is one of the year’s best films, a cinematic masterpiece that deserves to be cherished and applauded far beyond its running time.
The Handmaiden opens upon a young woman leaving her home with a weeping woman noting that she should have been the one to go. It is apparent that the position of a handmaiden to the wealthy Lady Hideko was a treasured position. It is understandable why a young, impoverished village woman with the opportunity to earn a living in posh quarters (the notion of “posh” headquarters for the handmaiden is dispelled quickly, however) would be distraught at losing an opportunity to earn more coins than she would in the village itself. There’s also the colonial aspect of the setting playing in here quite subtly, with the opportunity for a young Korean woman to earn her keep at a Japanese manor possibly keeping her family safer than they otherwise might be. The camera pans out to a village road where the rain is pouring and off goes Sook-hee to one of the most brilliantly constructed manors in cinematic history. The manor, as the woman who runs the household explains in blunt terms, is a dualistic construction built by a Count who is fascinated by both English and Japanese cultures. It’s the first clue in uncovering the theme of duality that runs deep throughout the film, with each individual being multiple beings regardless of whose perspective is taking hold of the primary narrative. It’s maddening in the hands of a less skilled director, but Chan-wook makes those little twists and turns feel thoroughly engaging and thrilling to boot. The second act of the film is where the ubiquitous flashbacks take their most intriguing turn, replacing certain sequences from the first act but from a different character’s perspective to give it an entirely different meaning. To add another layer of complexity, the plot unspools information that isn’t necessarily relevant to either of the two dominant perspectives but the script’s smoothness gives far more room to intrigue than bemusement. The third act somehow manages to surprise still, even if the final shots of the film could have benefited from tighter editing.
Lady Hideko’s reading of pornographic literature to titillate men reeks of prisons built around several constructs of patriarchal oppression. Lady Hideko hasn’t likely been given the sex education that should be mandatory. She has been taught, as it is apparent, that sex is something that simply happens, which is true. She has also been taught, however, that sex is something that occurs for the pleasure of men, which is preposterous and damaging in ways that men who postulated this paradigm simply are unable to understand. That aspect of her sexual education has been especially damaging to her development and psyche, creating an inward prison where she bottles all of the feelings she’s not allowed to have at the risk of some punishment. She feels the biological urges that rise with sexuality, but she suppresses them because there simply isn’t an avenue for her to express that and just as importantly, for that sexual desire to be reciprocated back. Her uncle sees her nothing more than a vessel for the sexuality he believes is ordained to be controlled by men, a vessel for fortune he can use her for. When she is reading those pornographic manuscripts to the men in front of her, the camera makes a note of their titillation, their quickly beating hearts rising in their chests as they feel the arousal the woman reading them isn’t allowed to experience. There’s a deadness in her eyes as she reads, a quiet hum of wanting to be free of the prison built around her sexuality. Sook-hee arrives as the key. Even with all of the plotting and knife-twisting the film promises and delivers in abundance, there’s something sublimely stirring about the way she becomes a force to free Lady Hideko from the prison men had built around her. She isn’t interested in being demure, in fulfilling the role of a proper handmaiden who serves and stays quiet. She is, to be blunt, happy to stir shit up. There’s one sequence in particular that takes place in the library Lady Hideko reads in that had a roar of triumph nearly unparalleled in any cinematic sequence that I’ve seen all year. There’s almost no dialogue in that sequence, but it isn’t necessary. The stirring music and emotional drama at stake lift that scene into the heavens, giving it life through a feminist beating heart ready to burst out of the film’s gorgeously crafted chest.
The Handmaiden may be Chan-wook’s most gorgeous film to date. The art and production design breathe immaculate life into the theme of duality, constructing a mansion where each door seems to conceal another, which itself conceals another room. The shadows of eavesdroppers bleeds through the screen windows ubiquitous in Japanese architecture, as if foreshadowing of the inevitable bloodshed that leaks through in a fashion that immediately recalls Oldboy and Snowpiercer. It’s restrained bloodshed, but it’s to Chan-wook’s credit that he doesn’t overindulge that particular trope of his work because this is a film that doesn’t require it. The score, courtesy of composer Cho Young-wuk, is one of the most sublimely transformative scores of the year and on that aside, it’s simply gorgeous to just sit back and listen to. The dramatic stirrings of string instrumentation power the film and without it, the passion and drama on display would have definitely lacked a decisive punch. The themes of dominance of power in sex between men and women is deftly handled, which is more than I can say for a good chunk of cinema helmed by a male director. The acting is phenomenal, the three primary actors in particular being able to carry several frames of mind depending on the perspective they’re within, but without letting go of the actual agenda underneath. It’s the understanding and love afforded to the same-sex couple at the center of the film, however, that is The Handmaiden’s true triumph. In the same vein as Carol but an entirely different sort of film, The Handmaiden isn’t interested in using the two women in love as some sort of grand statement or to use them to create some sort of grand tragedy that has become a truly unfortunate trope. There are be two women who are bound by patriarchal institutions in their particular ways who find a love in one another men don’t allow. Instead of the film relying upon a male hero to save the day or indeed do much of note at all (the last line spoken by a man in the film is tellingly about how much he prizes his penis, which seems about accurate), it’s the women who break the patriarchal barriers around one another to achieve the true culmination of their love.
Title: The Handmaiden
MPAA Rating: N/A
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Produced by: Park Chan-wook, Syd Lim
Screenplay by: Park Chan-wook, Chung Seo-kyung
Based on: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Kim Tae-ri, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook, Moon So-ri
Music by: Cho Young-wuk
Cinematography by: Chung Chung-hoon
Edited by: Kim Jae-bum, Kim Sang-bum
Production Company(s): Moho Film, Yong Film
Distributed by: CJ Entertainment
Running Time: 145 minutes
Release Dates: 14 May 2016 (Cannes), 1 June 2016 (South Korea)
Image Courtesy: The Hollywood Reporter