Chan-Wook’s “Handmaiden” Unpacks Sexual Power Dynamics

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

“Of all the things I’ve washed and dressed, have any been so pretty?” This is the first question Korean handmaiden Sookee asks herself upon meeting her new mistress, a soft-spoken Japanese noblewoman named Lady Hideko. Sookee’s immediate attraction to Hideko is objectifying — even clinical — mirroring the aesthetic fascination that revered Korean director Park Chan-Wook maintains for the decadent imagery that defines his most recent work, The Handmaiden.

The film is clearly about sex, but it’s also about the broader philosophical implications of the myriad power dynamics inherent in a sexual relationship. The film takes place during Japan’s annexation of Korea in the early 20th century and at its most high-concept, Park’s script frames the cultural exchange of this transitional period as something akin to a sexual relationship between the two countries, one just as fraught and dangerous as any physical embrace portrayed on screen.

Though its 140-minute running time is padded by some unnecessary detail, The Handmaiden operates at a mostly sustained fever pitch of tension and mystery, cleverly peeling back layer after layer of power play and attraction. It uses unconventional storytelling and graphic innuendo to serve a surprisingly feminist narrative that is steeped in historical allegory and deception that will satisfy anyone with a taste for period detail, intricate plotting and revenge.

Part of this is accomplished by outright deception on the film’s part — no character in The Handmaiden is to be taken at their word. Sookee enters Lady Hideko’s home upon false pretenses, pretending to be a handmaiden when she has really been sent there to convince her mistress to marry a con man posing as one Count Fujiwara. Once married, Fujiwara plans on declaring his wife insane, confining her to an asylum and taking the fortune for himself. But their plans spin out of control when Hideko, who was raised under the strict watch of her uncle Kouzuki, takes a liking to her new handmaiden.

Soon, Sookee’s streetwise worldliness and Hideko’s lust for escape develop into an intense relationship that is utterly forbidden by the terms of Sookee’s agreement. What ensues is a mind-bending descent into the disturbing depths of male depravity as Sookee discovers the secrets behind Kouzuki’s book-filled mansion.

The complexity of the narrative might threaten to overwhelm, if not for the film’s distinct storytelling choices. Instead of drawing out implications from Hideko and Sookee’s mutual attraction, Park employs a temporally flexible three-act structure to divide the proceedings into manageable slices. Though each act focuses on a different perspective — the first act told through Sookee’s eyes, the second by Hideko and the third jumping between characters — this choice should not be mistaken for narrative simplicity.

The Handmaiden provides a limited stream of information regarding the true nature of Fujiwara’s plot and Kouzuki’s estate, often withholding revelations by skipping over key scenes only to return to them later. In keeping with the director’s previous features, Oldboy and Stoker, the viewer is anything but omniscient; because of its strange timeline, the film’s characters almost always know more than the audience. While every central figure is caught in a web of mutual deception, the movie itself is just as duplicitous, rendering its few moments of truth both shocking and immensely satisfying.

As a story, however, The Handmaiden’s style becomes progressively messier as it unravels. Certain scenes are robbed of emotional impact by coming later than they should, all in the name of dramatic effect. Furthermore, the film’s latter half suffers from over-explaining itself. This is a shame, as most movies like this benefit from a second viewing to parse out the implications of any given twist, and the most thought-provoking stories often leave room for healthy speculation. The Handmaiden instead goes out of its way to answer every conceivable question, leaving no page unturned. While thorough, Park would have done well to place subtle hints as to the true nature of certain scenes on the first run-through, allowing viewers to solve the smaller parts of the puzzle themselves. Instead, The Handmaiden’s self-solving nature does a disservice to anyone enticed by mystery.

However, the film’s rich historical atmosphere is enough to allow the viewer to revel in even its slowest moments. Early 20th century Korea has been recreated in stunning detail, with the effect of the Japanese occupation dripping from every frame. The Korean Uncle Kouzuki, a learned collector of books, has a taste for the union of Japanese and Western culture, as exemplified by the fusion of architecture that characterizes his splendid estate. Meanwhile, a Korean sensibility is noticeably absent, and when Fujiwara brings this up to Kouzuki, the count replies that he finds Japan possesses an elegance that Korea lacks. Though Fujiwara disagrees with Kouzuki regarding his perception of Korea as “wild,” the purpose of his visit is to claim a Japanese noblewoman as a sort of trophy. Likewise, Sookee only agrees to deceive Lady Hideko on the grounds that she gets to keep Hideko’s jewelry.

Park’s clear message is that each culture objectifies the other and the opulence of Japan is positioned as a counter to Korea’s earthiness. Seeing Kouzuki’s estate through the eyes of Sookee, who has spent her whole life in the streets, the audience is meant to act as a surrogate for a nearly-absent Korea that rarely shows itself, except where it creeps up from under Sookee and Fujiwara’s carefully-constructed facades.

The Handmaiden’s labyrinth of secrets and betrayal is precise both in pacing and presentation. This beauty hinges entirely on its handling of sex, which has its delicate roots tangled throughout the estate. Though there are only two sex scenes, Park presents them with aesthetic grace and, more importantly to the story, symmetry. Hideko and Sookee are reciprocal forces who complement one another, whereas the men who threaten to encroach upon their lives and bodies represent an unwelcome imbalance, consumed by greed without passion and unconcerned with consent.

While not quite a masterpiece, The Handmaiden is a gripping film that stares boldly at the best and worst of humanity, telling a deeply disturbing yet cathartic story that nearly reaches Oldboy’s frenzied heights.