Over the past decade or so, I’ve become more and more of a fan of Korean cinema, which seems to approach genre boundaries as suggestions at best, and more commonly, as outdated and pointless. Whether you’re following the insane twists and turns of Save the Green Planet!, in awe of the astonishing kinetic energy of The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, spending your time torn between laughter and horror at Memories of Murder, gleefully watching as Snowpiercer swings from black comedy to political allegory to horrific violence, or digging through the devious (and deviant) world of Oldboy, there’s something incredible about the way that Korean filmmakers defy easy categorization. And for me – as for many – my gateway into the country’s cinema came in the films of Chan-Wook Park, who helmed Oldboy and the rest of the so-called “vengeance” trilogy. Sure, Oldboy was the breakthrough, but as I saw Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, I found myself realizing that what Park was turning out was unlike much else I had ever seen, and in awe of the surprises they could pull off. And so, when I started to hear the praise and reaction The Handmaiden was getting, I got even more excited than usual for a new Park film.
What was more unusual, though, was the constant references to how “feminist” The Handmaiden was. Park is a lot of things – a master of visual style, a thrilling storyteller, a masterful director – but you’d be hard pressed to find the feminism of many of his films. And yet, when you see his most recent film – the underrated Stoker, his English-language debut – you can see a man who’s starting to empathize more with his female characters, to understand the sexual dimensions (and danger) to the twisted worlds he created. And so, I was intrigued, but not quite sold.
And yet, it all turns out to be true – The Handmaiden is a pointedly, assuredly feminist film. It’s also a period piece set in 1930’s Korea; it’s also a twisty, convoluted crime story. It’s also a glorious black comedy, and a tale full of violence and menace. Oh, and it’s a lesbian love story, with some quite explicit sex scenes that come along the way. In other words, it’s about what you’d expect from Park – and that means, in addition to all of that wildness, it’s also incredibly stylish, darkly funny, wonderfully performed, oozing with atmosphere, and constantly doing what you least expect.
Taken in its simplest sense, The Handmaiden is the story of a young Korean woman who’s hired as the new handmaiden for a Japanese heiress. (Side note: the way the film handles the dual-language issue with subtitles is a simple but effective method that I really appreciated.) Not long after she arrives, the heiress starts being courted by a Japanese count who’s been working with her uncle (who also serves as her caretaker). All of which sounds simple enough – except that, within the first five minutes, the film reveals that the handmaiden and the count are actually partners in crime, working together to scam the heiress out of her fortune.
And if you think that sounds complicated, that’s before the handmaiden and the heiress begin to spend all their time together, and maybe start falling for each other…and before the big reveals start crashing their way through the film. Because everything I’ve told you doesn’t even get past the first third of the plot, and doesn’t even begin to touch on the layers of weirdness, depravity, and violence that are lurking in the shadows. But the simple version is: if all you’re looking for is a great twisty crime story, The Handmaiden delivers in spades, with schemes within schemes, double crosses aplenty, and loads of shady people working their cons.
So, yes, The Handmaiden is undeniably a stylish, great thriller. But beyond that, it’s also a wonderfully feminist work, like so many have pointed out. Explaining how would be to give away some of the fun; suffice to say, the movie really gets going when the women fall in love, and once you realize exactly what the things are that they’re rebelling against – and maybe why our heiress’s aunt committed suicide in that tree outside her window – it’s not hard to love The Handmaiden as a story about men who abuse women and the way they pay for their cruelty. Except, well, even that’s not quite right…but it’s close enough for the purposes of this review, and without digging too deeply into what’s going on plot-wise by the end.
The thing about The Handmaiden is that, essentially, it’s a crime thriller, one with a lesbian love story tucked into it. But summarizing the film that way is to rob it of its many pleasures – its beautiful and lush staging, its great performances, its wonderfully shifting moods, its thoughtful subtext, and its gleeful willingness to shift gears on a dime and take you wherever it feels like going. Is it pulpy, a little trashy, a little excessive? Oh, undeniably. But is it also incredibly fun, wonderfully invigorating, and excitingly unpredictable? Hugely so. And once you factor in the wonderful style and boundary-defying nature of it all, you’ve got a fantastic time in the theater. Just, you know, don’t take your mom to this one.