There are some directors who build long lasting careers by continually topping themselves or at least keeping a pretty consistent turnout over many years, but then there are also a lot of directors who find themselves haunted by an early success and need to work like hell to reach that level again. Orson Welles is possibly the greatest example of that given that no matter how great his films were it was basically impossible to ever top Citizen Kane. A more recent example is probably Quentin Tarantino, who certainly made a number of great films that any other filmmaker would be jealous of, but for however good Jackie Brown or the Kill Bill movies were the simple fact was that they didn’t feel like the revolution that Pulp Fiction was and it was only with his recent successes with period pieces like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained that he really stepped out of the shadows of that landmark achievement. In many ways the Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook has been in a similar situation. I don’t know that his breakout film Oldboy is exactly a landmark or anything but it’s a damn good twisty little thriller that sits well alongside films like Fight Club and Memento in the pantheon of cool twisty 2000s movies and it did a lot to bring the recent wave of cool Korean movies to the west. Since then Chan-wook has remained relevant and made a number of pretty cool little movies like Thirst and Lady Vengeance that have certainly had compelling elements but they’ve all been a bit thornier than his breakout and have had odd tonal shifts that never quite worked for me. My disillusionment probably reached its peak with his first (and so far only) English language work Stoker. That film has its fans and as usual with his work there were some interesting elements but for me it didn’t really work at all. However, I’ve continued to follow his career and it seems like my patience has finally been rewarded with Chan-wook’s very promising latest work The Handmaiden.
The Handmaiden is based on a contemporary novel set in Victorian England called “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. For the adaptation the action has been moved to South Korea during the 1930s Japanese occupation and begins from the point of view of a young woman named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) who grew up on the streets and knows quite a bit about pickpocketing, forgery, and various other rackets. One day she’s approached by a fellow con artist / friend of the family (Ha Jung-woo) who has a scheme to pose as a Japanese count named Fujiwara to win the hand of a shut-in Japanese heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who has been living her entire life in a mansion in Korea with her strange and slightly domineering uncle (Cho Jin-woong) and then have her committed to a Japanese insane asylum so he can keep her fortune. In order to do this he employs Sook-hee to be Hideko’s handmaiden and help push her towards him when he arrives at the manor but this plan starts to go awry as Sook-hee’s sympathies start to change and she begins to sympathize with Hideko and even begins to form a Sapphic attraction towards her.
The film is set in an old estate that was built in both the British and Japanese style one should not be misled into believing that Park Chan-wook has compromised his often twisted sensibilities just because of the Masterpiece Theater trappings on the surface. The movie is not shy in regards to sex and while there isn’t a ton of violence there is one scene that would be right at home in the vengeance trilogy. The characters in the movie generally speak in unpretentious dialog rather than the formal wording you expect in this sort of thing, in part because two of the main characters are lower class conmen rather than true blue bloods, in in general the movie just moves along rather than bloviating about class and manners. The fact that the film is set during the era of Japanese occupation is definitely important, but I’m still sort of unpacking why. The film rarely ever shows actual Japanese soldiers or the more overt atrocities that happened during this era but it’s no coincidence that the film is set during this time and Chan-wook seems to be making some sort of statement about a more insidious cultural imperialism that was also going on during this era.
All three primary characters in the film are bi-lingual and conversations can go from being in Korean to being in Japanese quickly, sometimes within the same sentence (Magnolia Pictures has helpfully subtitled the two languages in different colors to mark this) and you get some sense that the Korean characters are in some ways sort of jealous of the Japanese characters, or at least of their power and wealth, while the Japanese are themselves seemingly trying to emulate the British. One could perhaps intuit some sort of metaphor between the Koreans who are forced to conceal their own cultural pride and the women characters who are forced both into the closest and away from greater freedom by a patriarchal society. However, I’m no expert on this moment in Korean history so I’m pretty sure that there’s something there that I’m not fully comprehending on the first watch. You do not, however, need to be looking too deeply at the themes to enjoy The Handmaiden as it works just fine as a twisty little con artist movie with a great structure and interesting characters mixed in with some of that perverse Park Chan-wook flavor to spice things up. There’s little doubt in my mind that this is Chan-wook’s best movie since Oldboy and I might even prefer it to that movie.