Review by Abe Rose
Park Chan Wook’s masterful thriller, 아가씨(The Handmaiden), has nuances that I fear may be lost in translation. For instance, while the English title, The Handmaiden, refers to the principal character, Sook-Hee, the Korean title, 아가씨 (ah-ga-ssi), refers to a completely different character, Lady Hideko, who is the true fulcrum of the story. Firstly, 아가씨(ah-ga-ssi) roughly translates to meaning “Lady,” or “young woman,” and is used in a respectful sense. Secondly, it is also can be used as a pickup line, as in something akin to “Hey Baby,” and can be used either in a intimate sense or a rude sense. Thirdly, the way in which we come to explore Lady Hideko’s character largely stems from the ambiguity of her title. The film will often rewind showing the same characters from different perspectives. Using one perspective, she is cold and stoic, and by a different perspective, she is passionate and sweet. Because I am somewhat familiar with Korean, I caught this subtlety of the language, but this revelation only shed light on the fact that there are probably a great many other foreign film titles that lose charge and ambiguity through translation, meaning that I would have absolutely no idea that I missed anything important.
The story centers on con artists planning to deceive the Japanese Lady Hideko living in a great manor in Korea. The handmaiden, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is to convince the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), to marry a Korean con-artist passing himself off as a Japanese nobleman. They will elope to Japan, and then he will have her declared insane and make off with her wealth. If this sounds like the plot of something devilishly Victorian, it’s because it is based on the novel, Fingersmith, by Welsh writer, Sara Waters. Surprisingly, Korea during the Japanese occupation makes a good setting for Victorian adaptations.
We can sympathize with the plight of the poor handmaiden, Sook-hee, but we also have to pity the wealthy Lady Hideko. The annexation of Korea was not her doing. She was merely born into her miserable status. Living in this great manor is not so much a symbol of luxury, but rather it is a nightmarish hell in which all maidservants resent her and despise her for her control over their lives. She is the enemy because of circumstance, not choice. Because of the fact that she is so sympathetic, the film is charged with an identity crisis of sorts; it wants to tell a revenge story of the clever thieves who get a chance to strike back at the ladyship, but why does the Lady Hideko have to be such a kind and generous individual who does not deserve malice? The backstabbing would be so much easier if she were monstrous.
The film’s dialogue is spoken in two languages, meaning that dubbing would take out the careful subtleties as gracefully as taking a filet mignon and grinding it up and serving it as processed hamburger. The film is set in 1930’s Korea, during the Japanese occupation. At that time, there was great pressure for the people of Korea to assimilate into Japanese culture. Koreans were forced to change their names into Japanese, and they were made to speak Japanese. Not doing so could result in great penalty. That reality is reflected in The Handmaiden. The characters in the film switch freely from Korean to Japanese, and sometimes from Japanese to Korean. The Japanese language is subtitled in yellow while the Korean language is subtitled in white to give foreign viewers visual cues when a character specifically chooses to jump into a different language. The Korean characters will speak Japanese to seem more trustworthy, and to embolden their con, while in return, Japanese characters will speak familiarly in Korean to come across as understanding and compassionate, and perhaps also to send the signal, “I know your language, so don’t try to pull a fast one on me.” But the more that they change languages, the more the languages get encoded and recoded until it’s unclear who is deceiving who.
The plot is so multi-layered that the film actually rewinds back to show the same events from entirely different perspectives. It’s an ingenious device that adds ambiguity and doubt to the stories being told, much like the 1950 film by Akira Kurosawa, Rashomon, in which that film rewinds around four times to give multiple accounts of the same story from different points of view. But while The Handmaiden uses the same storytelling device, it actually has less to do with something like Rashomon, and more to do with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. It takes a few retellings for the real theme of the story to get untangled and left dangling in the forefront.
There is a thick web of a plot, and it requires astute attention to unravel who exactly is conning who, but by the time we start to unravel the mysteries, it becomes clear what the real conflict actually is. It’s not so much a revenge tale of Koreans rising up to the Japanese during the occupation. In the film, the Koreans are all acting and speaking Japanese, but if every Korean character is doing this, then what is the distinction between acting Korean and acting Japanese? They could be Koreans deceiving other Koreans, because that cultural distinction is blurred. At some point, this stops being a story of Korea resisting the oppression from the Japanese; what it actually was all about this whole time is the story of women resisting oppression from men.
Sook-Hee finds herself falling in love with the woman she is trying to con. It’s a forbidden love; Lady Hideko is Japanese, while she herself is Korean. Lady Hideko is rich while she is poor. Lady Hideko is a master she while is a servant. They play out roles that were assigned to them by men. In one sense, Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko are characters that could be found in erotic literature. They play the roles of innocent lady who wants to learn sexuality, and the young handmaiden who comes to teach her. But depending on the perspective, this scenario can be interpreted as smut, or it can be seen as something of a triumphant female empowerment, of pushing out the male influence over their embodied roles. It uses duality and repetition to show in the same instance how eroticism can be interpreted widely differently depending on what each audience is intending to get out of it. A subplot involving aristocrats in a gentlemen’s book club who meet and listen to the readings of classic erotica greatly illustrates this point. At one point they gather around to watch a woman forced to be strung by rope and put in various Kamasutra-like poses with a mannequin. The woman involved often describes herself as a cold, lifeless body. She is merely a puppet to be posed with in intimate situations and the men in her life are the ones who are pulling the strings. The way she views her situation is vastly different from how the men view her situation.
As always Park Chan Wook’s camerawork is commanding and thrilling. The costumes and set decorations are sights to behold, but the way he uses his camera to glide these long hallways and fly all around these great rooms is just simply riveting masterwork. His compositions suggest a mirror duality. Even in the scenes that likely would have given it an NC-17 rating are perfectly composed and meticulously framed, as if both women are mirror reflections of one another. It has long been established now that the MPAA holds a double standard when it comes to rating scenes of sexual pleasure. The documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated contained several interviews with directors who were told by the MPAA to cut down a few seconds, a few reactions, or else face the box office poison of the NC-17 rating. Scenes involving male pleasure are generally accepted by the MPAA and will be given a softer rating, but the scenes involving female ecstasy will often result in stronger ratings. And in that sense, The Handmaiden boldly make up for years of repression. If the content is gratuitous, it is because the work is specifically raising issues with the way that erotic material is to be interpreted. Some will see these scenes as vulgar and smutty, while others will see powerful statements within them.
Given Park Chan-Wook’s track record of violence, this one is surprisingly one of his lesser violent films. Oh it’s still violent, but his level of violence usually involves pliers and teeth. This film is restrained and nuanced, and he expands his wingspan to stretch into bold new territories. This is one of the best films of 2016.