The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden ★★★★½

It's a craftsman's ideal. Relying heavily on its twists, turns and convolutions and like the most culturally known specimens of the genre(the sting, vertigo or sleuth) it is in a constant battle of withs with the viewer, whom the film treats as a respectful rival. It leaves carefully manufactured clues so a keen eye and a clear mind can deduct a resolution for a given time, but it also revels in pulling a rug underneath and give a left field, but understandable when given hindsight, sixth option and a new storytelling path, thus prolonging the parasocial cat and mouse game until the uninevitable conclusion. It also helps that it is naturally seasoned with a fine finesse of madness that permeates a noticible chunk of far East Asian cinema, having a quartet of characters, and many more diegetic spectators that bravely cross into caricature space and scenes of violent irony that call to comparisons with some infamous VHS era anime OVA's( think Wicked City or Legend of the Overfiend). Kim Min-hee, dressed in gorgeous garments of divine beauty that also have a morbid undertone of recalling the role of comfort women, rides a wooden mannequin with an equally wooden erection while creepy and finely dressed gentlemen leech off the sexual current that imbues the air is a prime example of the lunatic perversions previously discussed. It's pulpy erotica mixed with technical mastery and prestige design that would make AMPS give in all their campaign money. The Handmaiden at first sight seems like another male gaze infused sleaze show, but the more the pieces start to glue together, the more it revieals an impressive if deeply flawed tale of societal oppression and self liberation and like a ripe apricot, there are layers to be digested and appreciated once the sweet surface is being pierced trough.

This extravagant approach to work is also present in the film's most controversial topic, that of explicit sexual intercourse. A second watch of the film reveals that the erotic energy kicks in early on. Grinding a nasty spot on a tooth with a finger my not seem like much at first, but the gates of debauchery are wide open, it's only going to get kinkier from there. A sex scene gets shown from two different poins of view, the audience gets the the same amount of pleasure as do the characters doing the act.
It's clear that Park Chan-Wook is having a little too much fun here for himself, prioritizing having naked female bodies pozitioned thus they summon fetishistic tendancies of little digestive value or have Kim Min-Hee(Hideko) and Kim Tae-Ri(Sook-Hee) in a pose that is guaranteed to invoke the trope of men exploiting lesbian passion for male consumption, but, fortunately, the film does not die on a hill of being just a libido stimulatior.
The primary cast is divided equally between man and women, with abundance of pairings of both homosexual and heterosexual nature, equal and unequal in posture when left unsupervised, nurturing or destructive when colliding. In this film's case, a man courting a woman is a display of imbalance and screwed power structures. Alone together they are positioned in dom-sub dynamic( not of the fun, consentual variant) and the camera obeys this doctrine when filming them. She is there to be desired, without him caring if the desire is returned back. A standard chain of events begins to unfold, for we are led to believe that a woman's body is going to be gratified for the consumption of those writing the narrative. This, we might asume, expected outcome is informed by decades of creative forces projecting their perverse misogyny on to women stripped of complexities, reduced to an image. Then, a switch turns on( in line with the characters and most of the public). A man courts a woman, steadily undressing her for immanent sexual activity, and yet she is never fully nude in his presence. In Hideko's case, there is a glimpse of a bare back and nates, as to bait the frustrated watcher with what he possibly came to see, but she, or Sook-Hee for that matter, is never naked when the perception of a male gaze is on. Bareness is only possible when one woman admires the other, thus forcing us to adopt to the historically barely utilized female gaze. This is where Chan-Wook's averness of the genre he is working with kicks in, and his ways of subverting it starts, or when Jeong Seo-Kyeong's input and Sarah Waters' source material begins to shine over his auteur intentions.

The same playfull stirring of erotic thriller conventions is present in the aforementioned sex scenes. The first one is performative for the audience, having it start
in a manner of a pornographic film, with purposely lackluster acting and childlike curiosity, re-enacting countless PornHub openers. That is what's usually expected of two beautiful woman under the mixed guide of established, reductive gender norms under patriarchal rule and voyeuristic perspectives, and as steam fills every pore of the room, the screen fades to black. The audience is being played with, expectations are turned upside down. The same sensation getting the short end repeats once betrayal and laughter clapper the end of act one. The characters know more than the audience, and they are not letting us in on the joke just yet. That laugh is for us, the full enjoyment for them.
Complete joy of erotic sentience begins once the scene repeats. It lasts longer, but all pretences are dropped by this point in the story, with the two woman realizing their love for each other. The role play we have been following for the last hour ceases to exist, being replaced with tenderness, lovers embracing screwy positions while finally experiencing the bound of closeness, or having a consented passion for the first time in life. Even the much malignant "scissoring" serves a purpose, the camera positioning both partners in the same plane. They are equal from that moment on, the boundaries of ethnicity and social hierarchy have been broken.

Those boundaries were in dire need to be exterminated, as the two initial POV parts reveal some gruesome details. Sook-Hee's part is a tale of exploitation, of a peasant girl entering the playing field where her choice is close to nonexistent. Hideko's tale is one of abuse, spanning decades under an dictatorial household, stripped of any kind of autonomy or emotional relapse. That's why a noose is always in the background. While being a narrative tool at the same time it is an indicator that the limited agency they've been given by the Count for the scheme is hanging in the air.

The Handmaiden is also interested in exploring the powers of oppression. The set-up is Japan occupied Korea, here inmplemented to muddle the question of Korean national identity, a response to then prime minister Park Geun-Hye's scandals( she herself was the daughter of the former fascist dictator Park Chung-Hee). While that might seem as a mare background notice, it is this place and time that informs the decision of every named character, ascending further by showing a clear divide affecing the production decision, with subtitles being two colored. Even the men, the Uncle and the Count, themselves the holders of oppressive power( The initial poster reinforces this idea, with the uncle pulling the hair of one girl with one hand, while using his other, along with the help of the count to hold the other girl firmly in a sitting position while she's presented as doll-like.) are pawns in the bigger picture.
This crushing dynamic becomes apparent clearly once the Count gets center staging. A know-it-all trickster bastard, his thought process gives us benefitial insight to understanding him, if not sympathizing with him. After all he is a nobody, painfully aware of that fact. It's why his name remains a mistery, revealed it would certify that even we the viewers would know his vertical mobility is non-existent. He hides behind an empty symbol of wealth, scheming throught everyone and everything. They get crushed, decived and left behind, but at least there is a small little glimmer of chance for him to assimilate within the power structures. Ascended Status before human morality.
Wealth holder by curious circumstance, maltreating, slimy, torturous, murderous and perverted by choice, the Uncle does not pass much better when the system is examined. He fancies himself as a bearer of knowledge, possessor of all patriarchal power that dictates when and how much a woman can live and yet behind the veneer is a pitable little creature. He forsakes his heritage for status, worships the same entity that delivered an unprecedented amount of demage to his compatriots in the form of his farcical, "high brow" mansion that's a mixture of Victorian and Japanese architecture and refuses to speak his native language( Korean) unless reduced to a primal instincts, and even then it's only for a moment. His Lust to consume Hideko is his psychological manifestation of inferiority complex. By conquering her, his Korean little man fights the bigger Japanese superiority that plagues the mind.
When the two men face each other, long after being stripped of goods and authorities, Park Chan-Wook introduces his final thesis. A wildly perpetuated saying is that loosing control of women, which happened to both long before they locked themselves in the basement, equalizes with metaphorical castartaion. The directors rejects this notion, emancipation of women doesn not equate with men being hurt. They do it to each other, in a last ditch effort to regain the shaken ground they stood on, to feel the power one last time. It is cathartic then, that the last spoken line of the film is "At least i will die with my cock intact". Harmful stereotypes be damned.

As for the two lovers, the finale has Park brace unusual directing choices. What has so far been a game of glances, evaporates once the final plan is a success. The close-ups, common for the majority of the run-time give way to medium sized shots. The last send-off of those sees Hideko in a boat, softly holding Sook-Hee's hand while piercing the Count, and by extension us with a look of complete victory in her eyes, her status gave her a semblance of choice once, but now it is all theirs. The third act sees them escaping to a better life, escaping the male authored text and male audience members. A cut away is made during the last sexual embrace. Only the sound of the bells can be heard. Those same bells went from tools of abuse and tyranny to being tools of pleasure, jubilance and liberation.
It's Therapeutic, possibly.

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