The Handmaiden - A Review and Airing of Grievances
Ah-ga-ssi (original title)
Dir. Park Chan-wook.
Starring Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo.
I don’t watch nearly enough Korean cinema. Frankly, I don’t watch enough movies from anywhere outside the US.
But this is only partially my fault. The Handmaiden received a tiny US release of 140 theaters (for comparison, there are nearly 140 theaters in New York City alone). It wasn’t released here for public consumption until January 2017, almost a year after its debut at Cannes, and not on Blu-ray until March. I couldn’t even find the film through piracy.
And that’s not surprising. Korean cinema does not do well here. Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake made about $5 million on a $30 million budget. One of the highest-grossing films in Korean history, Ryoo Seung-wan’s terrific Veteran, played in only a few US theaters and didn’t make waves. I saw it while living in Ann Arbor, and the theater was almost entirely east-Asian students. I only saw it because my Korean then-girlfriend took me, and I like foreign films.
Here’s why I bring all that up: Handmaiden should be a hit. It’s got a con-artist plot every bit as good as Ocean’s 11, a gorgeous period style every bit as good as Anna Karenina, an erotic bent infinitely better than 50 Shades of Grey. Truly there is something in Handmaiden for everybody.
And yet, no American success. Why not?
One cynical explanation might be that we don’t like subtitles. “I’m not going to read a movie,” I’ve heard viewers proudly declare. And The Handmaiden could not exist without subtitles. It slips between Korean and Japanese; to keep them straight, Korean lines were subtitled in white, and Japanese in yellow. The relationships between the characters and their languages are critical to understanding the film, but maybe we don’t have the patience for it.
Another possible cynical explanation: we’re not interested in period pieces set in non-white countries. Whether this is true or not, Hollywood seems to believe it—recall the insultingly Caucasian Exodus: Gods and Kings, or even this year’s Ghost in the Shell (the future counts as a period).
Part of the problem here is just that we don’t have a good understanding of East Asian history. The Handmaiden is set during the 1930’s, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Its attention to period detail is enrapturing, but we Westerners have no context for it. Is that an impediment to our understanding? I don’t think so. I’m certainly no historian, and my enjoyment of the film was undiminished. But it might be a barrier to entry, its Korean-ness dissuading us from even trying to understand.
I’d say this is symptomatic of America’s cultural pathology: films made in Korea are Korean Movies, films starring black people are Black People Movies, films with same-sex couples are LGBT Movies. But movies with white, straight, cis Americans are just…movies. The Avengers is fit for everyone’s consumption, but I dunno, sighs the suburbanite, I just don’t think Moonlight is for me. Our cultural blindness is part of America’s Jungian Shadow, which we refuse to engage with.
I know I’m supposed to be reviewing The Handmaiden, and I promise I’m getting to it. To do that, I have to confront the expectations around foreign films, the idea that the film will be fundamentally different because the director bills his surname first. But when you strip away the veil, either of exoticism or of xenophobia, The Handmaiden is a tremendous film that would be perfectly at home in an American theater, filling the same niche as Black Swan or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (another film that needed to be Westernized before we could see it).
At the center of The Handmaiden are three characters: Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the daughter of a legendary thief, “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a slimy-slick con man, and the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an heiress kept under tight control by her uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong, who is 39 in real life but here plays a 60-something pervert).
Fujiwara recruits Sook-hee to help him con Lady Hideko into marrying him, at which point he would take her money and have her committed to a mental institution. But, like secrets, a con can only be kept by two people if one of them is dead. Carefully-laid plans to awry when Sook-hee and Lady Hideko begin to fall in love—incredibly erotic love, not the innocent, non-threatening lesbian schoolgirl romance we’re so often spoonfed.
It’s difficult to say much more without spoiling something. I can’t speak to how well it holds up on subsequent viewings, but the first time through, the unfolding of the intricate plot is marvelous. It engages in a few dirty tricks, including my biggest pet peeve, the artificial withholding of information, but by and large the twists in the story fall in just the right place: surprising but believable, invisible in the moment but obvious in hindsight.
The con is also a perfect thematic vehicle for a film where every character is pretending to be someone they’re not—even the non-schemers. Uncle Kouzuki is essentially a Korean turncoat, adopting the customs of the occupying Japanese as his own, rejecting the trappings of his country as “ugly.” His head servant, Miss Sasaki (Kim Hae-suk), acts the role of the stern house manager; in fact, she is Kouzuki’s ex-wife, who he left to marry a Japanese woman. Despite the divorce, the two still share a bed.
And, of course, our trio of main characters are almost entirely façade. But punctuating their deception are moments of emotional honesty, almost entirely manifesting (or maybe triggered by) the constant lurid tension between the characters. In a spectacular early scene, Lady Hideko, nude in a bath, complains of a jagged tooth. Sook-hee retrieves a thimble and inserts it into Hideko’s mouth, filing down the rough edge. The two stare into each other’s eyes as if entranced, both aware of the sexual nature of the act, both engaging in it slightly too long for plausible deniability.
The characters variously embrace or excuse their transgressive behaviors. Kouzuki seems the most at peace with himself, at least privately. “I’m just an old man who likes dirty stories,” he tells Count Fujiwara. Fujiwara, by contrast, insists throughout the film he’s only after money, but we discover otherwise when he gets rough with a sexual partner whose consent is at best questionable.
So each character lies to each other, and many lie to themselves. The film, both visually and structurally, explores these false fronts, asking which parts of our actions are “real.” The Handmaiden, for all its eroticism and melodrama, confronts some of the more difficult aspects of interpersonal relationships. Can we really know the people in our lives? Can we really know ourselves?
Does any of this sound “foreign”? If this film were made in the US, starring white people, it’d get about a dozen Oscar nominations. Though set in a different time and place, The Handmaiden is a demonstration that people are people, with all our psychosexual baggage, wherever you go. It’s a visually masterful, superbly constructed film deserving of our attention.