It may be sacrilege to admit to modern cinephile circles, but I have not seen a Park Chan-Wook film until today. His name is spoken of in only the highest regard, with multiple films that he’s made being considered modern masterpieces. So when I went to see his latest achievement, The Handmaiden, after it finally got its U.S. release, I went in virtually blind having only heard very positive buzz about the movie during its run in international festivals.
The film is based off of the 2002 Victorian-era set novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, about a young street-smart thief who is employed by a gentleman criminal to help him swindle an heiress out of her fortune. Park handles and executes the subject matter with a professional and artistic expertise that he has come to be known for from films like Oldboy and Stoker. The most apparent and compelling quality of this is the chemistry between the heiress Hideko (Min-hee Kim) and her eponymous handmaiden Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri). Both actresses give extremely engaging performances, seamlessly being able to execute the complex mix of manipulation, desperation, anger, sadness, and eroticism demanded of their characters to a tee. This helped me stay invested in the two and a half hour long film and made the time fly by, much to my dismay as I would’ve been more than happy to stay in this visually compelling world with this story and characters longer.
The joining of these two performances as guided by Park’s invisible directorial hand comes to a sensual and erotic beauty in the form of the lesbian sex in the film. The passion these two characters feel for each other is laid bare on the screen with methodically brilliant editing and cinematography accentuating the heat and eroticism of these moments to make them as realistic and necessary to the story as possible. This was an aspect of the film I made sure to approach carefully. As a straight cis-gendered male, I have the least authority to credit a lesbian sex scene with accuracy or authenticity, even if I did think at the time that they serviced the film’s story well. For that matter, I wondered if Park Chan-Wook had any similar consideration when making this film. Thankfully for his sake and for the sake of film at large, his answer to this doubt is the film itself.
The film, which has a (straight) female cowriter attached to it, is a dramatic and at times humorous deconstruction of the male gaze and the harm that can come from masculine sexuality. This is perfectly reflected in the film’s setting. Japan during the 1930s was very militaristic and hyper masculine, which the film shows to have negatively influenced the men in Korea to the point where they also want to be as domineering as their Japanese overlords. One of the main male antagonists guards his library of erotic fiction with the statue of an erectly poised snake and pats his head with a handkerchief in a “oh dearest me” fashion when he forces Hideko to read erotica to an audience of noblemen. Although, if this seems more male guilt than legitimate portrayal, then Park’s interview for Jezebel.com further addresses this:
“… there is the source material: The novel has two women falling in love with each other. I thought if I follow the guideline that Sarah Waters had set in place, I could not go wrong… fundamentally, it’s not as if I’m trying to get into the mind of an alien. It is not something unimaginable”
So if you want to see a smart, thrilling, artistically made film that handles its subject with honest maturity, then look no further. Park Chan-Wook took a simple Victorian story and premise that most westerners are bored to death with and made it very engaging, emotional, and erotic all at once without sacrificing professional or artistic integrity. I hope this film can get the attention it deserves in its U.S. release, from the Park Chan-Wook fans and every filmgoer deserving to see a truthful portrayal of homosexual love that doesn’t skip out on thrills and twists.