Occupied village. Crying babies. Mothers many. Babies doze. Japanese colony. Korean village. Woman leaves. Baby stays. Both cry. Off goes. Jap’s house.
The opening scene of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden leaves no room for blinking. That is the secret of its hypnotic pace swimmingly swinging from a contemplative eye which leaves it all to a meticulous mise-en-scène to rapid successions of images beating all actions on its own game. And underlying this hypnosis is an origami-like plot creating a new shape, new figures forming with every new fold. To blink we’re invited not, though every so often we just have to watch with the corner of our eyes.
It turns out it’s all a big lie inside an abusive setting that couldn’t be more real. It is Korea during the 35-year Japanese occupation. The babies cry alright, but the other criers aren’t mothers; rather, they’re orphans recruited by former orphans, now fully-formed women, to learn to make a living in the street. We meet one of our protagonists as she’s leaving to “that Jap’s house,” but then, in a flashback, we truly learn where she’s coming from.
It is a Victorian, too Twistean lair, a shop for pickpockets and petty thieves where Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) lived before leaving, a place where we learn she’s mastered the art of first-impressing on others. She looks fragile, candid, a young woman in need of protection, but soon we get to know she can take care of herself quite well.
The “Jap’s house” she gets in, a mansion born into the mix between English and Japanese traditions, is owned by a Korean mogul who loves all things Japanese, who admires all things English, or who most decidedly detests all things Korean. An apostate of his homeland, we initially know of him by the rumors of his presence in his impressive estate, with huge portraits on the walls bearing his imposing image filled with self-hatred and the drudge-mongering of the butler-madam who shows Sook-hee around, gives her (us) some background as to the premises, and crafts a perfect pitch for her mission: Take care of a mad woman having bad dreams, a hysterical heiress, the landlord’s nephew and soon-to-be-wife of her uncle, former husband of her aunt, who hung herself on the beautiful cherry tree that adorns the moonless nights outside. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim, “No Tears for the Dead”), the Japanese (of course) heir of a fortune for which her uncle is no more than an affidavit, is trapped in her own destiny, unable to access her wealth.
The first plot twist comes (and last about which I will talk here), as Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha, “The Berlin File”), a minor Korean con-man who has managed to make believe he is part of the Japanese nobility, enters the mansion with all the intention of marrying well while supposedly teaching the Lady some painting techniques that are almost as fake as he is. And we know that this Count is a cunt because we’ve met him in the previous flashback, sending Sook-hee as a handmaiden for the Lady with the only purpose of conning her while she (purportedly) opens a pathway for Fujiwara to enter the heiress’ heart, elope her — then steal her fortune and forsake her, confine her in an asylum where her madness will find a house.
This is just part one of the three that make The Handmaiden. The Korean director keeps the triangular storyline of his source, Sarah Waters’ Victorian novel Fingersmith, only to then take significant licenses. The trisyllabic structure of the Korean title, “A-ga-ssi,” moves from a one-two-three that continuously shifts perspectives, intentions, agencies and sympathies (this latter ours) — constantly shifting the angle towards one or other apex, depending on the abuser. In this way, part one is told through the eyes of Sook-hee and part two, respectively, is told through the eyes of Lady Hideko. Then the third (the remotest to the novel, where Park’s imagery and obsessions are set loose) becomes a sort of synthesis between these two — something of a narrative hypotenuse.
But despite the unforeseeable turns and twists, what is truly unplanned, completely out of the characters’ control is that while trying to outsmart one another they find themselves blindly falling for each other. Here I’m speaking of our two main characters, our two catheti, who inevitably find a love they could desire just as much as they could expect. This game between master and servant, victim and perpetrator, creates a dilogic motif between passivity and activity that is best summarized by Sook-hee in one of those instances she dresses her mistress: “Ladies are truly the dolls of maidens.”
Between the emerging love of these two women, there is the abusive rule of two men. Something has been said about the Count, but then we see the Uncle (Jin-woong Jo, “The Admiral”) appear and act, and the Count looks almost palatable next to him. The reach of his abuse of both his late wife and his future wife and nephew gets every crook of his humongous house, manic manor. The main duty of both his women is to read and read well, so that they can entertain his guests in readings of erudite pornography, literary antecedents of Nikkatsu Roman Porno, while each and every one of them explodes in one unreleased erection that inflames every pore of their bodies — greed extends to the realms of excelsior onanism, the devious denial of orgasm, internal ejaculate, injaculate. These reading sessions, it’s worth noting, are meant to be auctions for wealthy pervies, affluent creeps who first applaud their bibliophile host and then bid for the book just read (which is very rarely sold).
Here we see where the Lady gets her education, an educated reflex that is, in her words, “like putting one’s hand away of the flame” — never to get burned, but never to feel anything again. And it is in this context that Chan-wook’s love story is framed. One of the most incisive views in the realms of retaliation, of raged revenge, the virtuoso filmmaker has managed to create a story of vindication at the fringes of a story of two lovers. Vengeance is nothing but riveting the margins, even though it’s at every turn of the page. His aesthetic instincts are equidistant to his character’s (the Agassi, the Lady): They are all calculated reflexes, as if with one hand they were cutting what with the other they are making — almost a simultaneous gesture.
It is curious, even surprising, that the director gives more agency to his two main characters than Waters does in her novel. The underlying theme is freedom and the search of it every time either character has to come face to face with their fears — for fear is the field of sexual violence; it is the very place in which an abused body learns to fear a loving wave, where a flame of care can be confused with a burning flame. That is what these characters have to fight, the fact that they fear each other as much as they feel for one another.
The fact that The Handmaiden is set during the Japanese occupation is no trifle, not a capricious decision. By setting the film there, the continuous, shifting revenge opens an uchronic time for history in which colonization, occupation, abuse can be reframed. This is the time of the future subjunctive, what would be should this or that had happened. It is the time of pure possibility, the time in which history is liberated, is set free of fear, freed under an uchronic gaze, which is ours as well, accomplices of an imaginary vendetta.
Unlike Park Chan-wook’s celebrated “Vengeance Trilogy,” retribution is here driven by an act of love; the role of the grotesque is to play the backdrop of a valiant love. His story is therefore told in the time of freedom, a free time that operates within the logic of the “as though,” where every possibility moves at the pace of every current there may be inside a fiery tide. In the end, it is as though the sea were being freed by a full moon.