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  • Post last modified:August 22, 2021

The Handmaiden: Perversion, Sadism and Love

When Park Chan-wook decided to adapt Sarah Waters’s novel ”Fingersmith”, he knew that there were two things he needed to take into consideration. He saw the mental hospital as a Western institution that needed a Korean equivalent, and he needed to find a period in Korean history that was similar to the British class system. There was an obvious choice – Park set his story during the three-decade long Japanese occupation of Korea, an era where Korean filmmakers have traditionally viewed the Japanese as villains. The Handmaiden is a more complex story, however.

Seducing a Japanese lady
In the early years of the 1900s, a con man (Ha Jung-woo) who calls himself Count Fujiwara has his eyes set on Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress. He plans to seduce her, marry her and make sure she ends up in an asylum. Then her inheritance will be his. But he needs an accomplice, which he finds in a pickpocket called Sook-he (Kim Tae-ri). She’s hired as Hideko’s new maid and her job is to whisper in her ear, to help convince Hideko to marry Fujiwara.

Lady Hideko lives with Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a Korean man who is collaborating with the Japanese and has been rewarded with a gold mine. Kouzuki is obsessed with rare books and makes Hideko read for his guests. She’s not a happy woman, but grows closer to her maid, close enough to make Sook-he her lover.

Divided into three chapters
The most accomplished film the director had made so far touches on Korean history and homosexuality, but those themes remain in the background as perversion, sadism and love is emphasized. The film is divided into three chapters, giving Park a chance to twist the story according to different perspectives that complicate and enrich this diabolical drama. There will be surprises along the way and the three leading actors find nuances in their performances that fit the different viewpoints, especially Kim Min-hee who walks a delicate balance between the maid and Fujiwara, a man who can’t quite arouse her sexual desires the way Sook-he can.

The deeper we dive into the story, the more we learn about the sadistic and perverted milieu that Hideko grew up in. In the end, we wonder how it has affected her and if the romance between her and the maid is genuine enough to survive the intrigue. The film is sumptuously staged in terms of production design and cinematography, drawing us into a beautiful but dark world, inhabited by people we remain unsure of for a very long time; evil and pleasure is intimately connected and obviously shunga erotic art has its place in the film, as part of Uncle Kouzuki’s vast collection.

As for the colonial era and the gay love story, Park intended to just have those ingredients be a natural part of the film. When it comes to your ability to do evil deeds, it doesn’t matter if you’re Japanese or Korean; the class system of the occupation does not mean you are automatically divided into ”good or bad”. As for the sex between Hideko and Sook-he, some critics thought those scenes primarily fulfilled a male gaze, but the eroticism is in any case an arresting, attractive ingredient. It would be easy to mistake this film for lacking a sense of humor, considering its thematic and visual darkness, but there are amusing moments, including an attempted suicide (!).

Jo Yeong-wook’s score has a sweeping grandeur that will please conservative film music fans. And the director’s admirers will also recognize a theme, vengeance, that Park keeps coming back to. In Oldboy (2003), revenge was bloody; here, it’s more emotional and thus perhaps even more painful.

The Handmaiden 2016-South Korea. 139 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Park Chan-wook, Syd Lim. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Screenplay: Park Chan-wook, Jeong Seo-kyeong. Novel: Sarah Waters (”Fingersmith”). Cinematography: Chung Chung-hoon. Music: Jo Yeong-wook. Production Design: Ryu Seong-hie. Cast: Kim Min-hee (Izumi Hideko), Kim Tae-ri (Sook-hee), Ha Jung-woo (Count Fujiwara), Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook, Moon So-ri.

Trivia: Original title: Agassi. The novel was previously filmed as a British miniseries, Fingersmith (2005).

BAFTA: Best Film Not in the English Language. 

Last word: “There’s a Korean term, sadaejuui, that is used to uniquely express this notion, where the people of a smaller nation are so drawn to the power of a larger nation, and become subservient to that power. They internalize it so much that they are not worshiping the bigger power by force, but are doing it voluntarily. Through the character of Uncle Kouzuki, I wanted to paint a portrait of these poor, sad, and pathetic individuals – who are poor, I say – but who become a big threat and a serious danger for the other people of their nation.” (Park, Film Comment)



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