WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Chan-Wook Park’s psychological thriller meets historical intrigue film swiped the foreign language category pretty much across the board in 2016. While it’s a feat of technical brilliance and visual genius, it’s the way Park uses his story to force his audience to question their assumptions that made me speechless the first time I saw it. Sat in my local indie cinema, I had never felt a whole audience breathe so in sync; who knew the sound of bells on water could be so triumphant?
Set against the backdrop of 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, The Handmaiden tells the tale of a thief and a conman ready to manipulate a wealthy heiress into marriage, before tricking her into a madhouse and running away with her fortune. Only, this isn’t about the thief and the conman, and it isn’t the princess who will be tricked into the madhouse – and the fortune isn’t destined for the first people that want it either. As baffling as any synopsis suggests, trust me when I say Park’s masterful craftsmanship of storytelling structure makes anyone and everyone lose themselves in its dark labyrinth of deceit.
We begin our story with Sookee, a young girl who in the first ten minutes leaves home in the rain, is bustled into a grand carriage, and transported into a dark and dense forest – only to be told by the driver that she still has a long way to go. It’s akin to the beginning of fairytales I read as a child, and perhaps the allure of The Handmaiden is how it takes something so familiar and, instead of twisting it into a depressing conclusion in which the heroines inevitably die tragically, has them come out the other side – dare I say it – happily ever after. But not without battle scars.
Because the fact is, this timid little maid who stutters when she arrives at the mansion, and has her shoes stolen by the other maids so she has to meet her new mistress in socks, is not what she seems. She appears as a classical heroine; moved more by the stream of fate than by their own hand, until Park gives us our first tumble down the rabbit hole and reveals her true identity as a thief. The home she left transforms to a thieves’ den; her new occupation a mission; her naivety a masquerade. In league with the ‘Count’ Fujiwara now courting her mistress, you could as easily call her a fox as a thief for her part in the scheme.
Now, a thief by nature is disobedient to authority, and Sookee has no qualms about it; she swears (profusely), uses the main entrance instead of the servants’ one, and argues with Fujiwara when he takes his plan too far for her liking. But, having flung off the ‘feminine’ ties of sweetness and innocence, Park doesn’t force her to claw at masculinity to find herself a personality; Sookee takes great pleasure in secretly trying on her mistress’ clothes, from the flamboyant to the luxurious. Even as a self-proclaimed ‘tomboy’ as a child, I can remember sitting on the floor by the mirror surrounded by dresses and shoes too big and expensive for me.
What often limits female characters striving for success is their having to identify as masculine; the Katniss-kick-ass epidemic (while awesome) did eventually miss the point of strong female characters. Femininity shouldn’t have to be shunned to succeed. The fear of femininity is linked a great deal to the body and beauty, as we grow up learning it is a woman’s greatest weapon and greatest vulnerability. My favourite moment in The Handmaiden is during the destruction of the pornography library, when Sookee is immortalised like a classical hero. Hideko narrates her as ‘the daughter of a legendary thief, who sewed winter coats out of stolen purses. Herself a thief, pickpocket, swindler’. No wonder it feels like a fairytale when the characters are liberated from their physical forms into nameless myths – something all the more significant for the female body, and the female voice, which are so rarely given freedom from weighted visual associations.
And visual associations are so rife with foreboding in this film; a doll the heiress Hideko clutches is later paralleled with a twisted wooden sex dummy; the earrings gifted to her by the Count are none other than those pictured in the perverted tentacle porn in the library readings. Again, I’d call attention to the likeness to a fairytale, where symbols metamorphosis into more than they first appear. And if you’d like to take stereotypes as symbols, then that’s what Hideko is: a femme fatale that is more than seduction. Following Sookee’s perspective, as we do in Part One, Hideko is introduced to us as childish, dim, effortlessly manipulated. She’s a rich, sheltered woman only interested in the potential of the Count’s affections. But she also reverses the roles between herself and Sookee: having called her mistress a doll for her to dress up, Sookee is surprised when Hideko offers to let her try on her dresses and jewels. Where Hideko was the toy to be manipulated for Sookee’s amusement, now she has her plaything. And at the first turn of perspectives in Part Two, we see this goes past laces and ribbons.
Count Fujiwara isn’t in league with Sookee, but with Hideko herself. Their plan, in fact, to dress Sookee up and blame insanity when she denies it to the madhouse doctors – oops, guess it’s the other woman’s fault for being naïve instead. Sitting in the audience my first time watching The Handmaiden, I actually felt guilty for how quickly I had assumed Hideko’s passivity. Of course, I have a soft spot for legendary thieves and bad-mouthed women, but I had dismissed Hideko of being anything other than a privileged, lovesick woman; The Princess in the Tower. Hideko’s history of childhood abuse her aunt’s suicide aside, she is raised to be a literal object of sexualisation; rich Japanese men are invited to readings where Hideko dictates the (disgusting) pornography her uncle treasures. Maybe it’s a severe comment on the way girls are raised to be aware of what men want from them, or maybe it’s just an inevitable reading from a female perspective. Either way, Hideko doesn’t deserve to be so quickly dismissed just because she appears a ‘typical’ woman.
And what exactly is a typical woman? Beautiful, gentle and sexy? There are erotic imagery and sexual themes scattered throughout the whole film, with the heiress and her handmaiden at the centre of its gaze. From the twisted pornographic readings in the library, the signs declaring that ‘pain is a garment’ (or kink, assumedly), to the Count insisting that being ‘taken by force’ is more pleasing, the women’s sexuality is seen as a tool to be used against them – or at the very least designed for men to take pleasure in. So I want it to be clear how important it is that our heroines are ‘disobedient’ in the most base way in this landscape; they fall in love with each other.
Which, of course, the men never see coming (I mean – shock horror – but women aren’t always interested in men). Oops, I guess the women weren’t naïve after all. Because it’s the Count that ends up in the deep end, along with Hideko’s abusive uncle. In the final chapter, it becomes apparent how every move Sookee and Hideko have made since they found each other has been a step towards taking the men down and escaping. Hideko knew Sookee wasn’t really a handmaiden, Sookee knew they planned to send her to the madhouse; Sookee told Hideko, and Hideko told Sookee. I think as an audience we’re so used to seeing female characters having to be enabled by a male figure, we’re almost the dupe here too. You know that they’re lovers, and they hate what the men have done to them, but – like so many other stories – they’re pushed too hard by circumstance for love to survive. But I don’t call it a modern fairytale for nothing.
Disobedient heroines are at the core of fairytales; Red Riding Hood met the wolf because she strayed off the path, and Bluebeard’s wife was going to look in that cupboard whether her husband liked it or not. But, of course, both girls ended up eaten or murdered for their troubles – a punishment for their curiosity, if you will. But whether some people see it as stupid or foolish, there are two heroines who escaped alive with their disobedience intact; the Princess and her Thief.
by Daisy-Leigh Phippard
Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. If you can’t find her lost between the shelves of a bookshop you might be able to see her in a dark cinema if you squint hard enough. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and find her general ramblings as @thedaisydeer at Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.
Categories: Feminist Criticism