(This review contains mild to heavy spoilers for The Handmaiden, so if you are in any way spoiler phobic, I suggest trying to see it first and then coming back to read this. If you don’t care about spoilers one bit, then read on and enjoy. Well…hopefully you enjoy it.)
I’m going to be completely upfront: I love this movie. At the time of writing I’ve seen it five times in theaters and I’m still not tired of it. In fact, my love and admiration for it has only grown with every subsequent viewing. But how did I get here? I wasn’t a Park Chan-Wook fan until seeing this (even though I’ve been meaning to watch Oldboy and the rest of the Vengeance Trilogy for years now), I’ve never read Fingersmith, the book that The Handmaiden is based on, and it wasn’t something that was on my radar at all. The only reason I even knew it existed was because I happened to see it listed as coming soon on my local cinema’s website and thought the premise sounded cool. But what that premise didn’t promise, and what really blew me away, was a beautiful and gripping crime drama that’s driven by a heartfelt story of love and salvation that gleefully plays with the traditional three act story structure in a way that I’d never seen before.
Having a heartfelt love story isn’t a unique thing, except in this case the two lovers are lesbian women and a bulk of it is them falling for each other and trying to establish a relationship without hurting each other. And the movie never demonises them for it, nor does it objectify them for the fantasies of horny men, even during the many passionate and erotic sex scenes in the movie (which Park Chan-Wook went out of his way to film in such a way that they wouldn’t come across as the male gaze). Rather it treats Sookee and Hideko’s budding relationship with the same amount of respect that is given to heterosexual ones and allows them to be normal within the world of the text, right down to the slow build of their attraction to one another. Sookee doesn’t have feelings for Hideko at first, being enlisted and sent by Count Fujiwara to act as Hideko’s handmaiden and help him steal away her fortune through seduction, and only really focuses on all the jewellery and dresses she’ll receive once they’ve completed their plan and dumped Hideko in an asylum. What she doesn’t count on is slowly falling for Hideko, with Hideko doing the same, in such a way that it makes it impossible for her to complete her end of the plan, which ends up becoming the driving force of the narrative. But unlike the typical heterosexual romance featured in movies like La La Land, their relationship doesn’t even become official until halfway through the movie, with everything up to that point focusing on Sookee and Hideko figuring out if the feelings they have for each other are real. It’s a nice change of pace from the traditional romance structure and helps the movie avoid the pothole that is the “couple have one massive fight that punches a hole through their relationship or destroys it completely” plot beat.
This relationship is intrinsically linked to the other main story of Hideko trying to escape from the clutches of her repulsive uncle, Kouzuki, who forces her to read “erotic” books to rich gentlemen by threatening to send her to “the basement”. It’s this fear that drives Hideko to try and run away with Fujiwara, with the plan being to marry in order to collect her inheritance and dump somebody in an asylum under her name, so as to avoid being found by Kouzuki. That somebody ends up being Sookee, who is being used by Fujiwara all along. This positions the narrative as a traditional “dashing prince saves damsel in distress” tale, except that Hideko’s feelings for Sookee end up preventing her from following through on the plan. She can’t bear to put her in an asylum and run off, but she also can’t continue living in constant fear of death at the hands of her oppressive uncle, so she tries to escape through the only available means to her…only to be saved by the person who was her true saviour all along: Sookee. As much as Fujiwara liked to believe he could help her escape, he couldn’t because he didn’t understand her at all. Sookee did and, instead of being saved by a conman who thinks painting a woman on a cigarette counts as “possessing beauty”, Hideko is saved by “the daughter of a legendary thief, herself a pickpocket and con-artist” and “the saviour who came to tear my life apart. My Tamako. My Sookee.”
What makes these storylines work is the way Park Chan-Wook structures the movie, borrowing the Fingersmith‘s structure and splitting the movie into three parts. This split isn’t down the lines of the traditional three act structure and is instead all over the place, with scenes that would normally be at the start of the movie occurring within part two or scenes from the halfway point being in part one, etc. Adding to this is the fact that two of the three parts are told from two different point of views, with part one being from Sookee’s perspective and part two being from Hideko’s. All of this allows Wook to be creative with the way he visually and audibly tells the story, teasing things in part one that will be fulfilled in part two and engrossing the audience within the film’s world. From simple things like showing a noose hanging from a tree in part one before showing why it’s there in part two, to even bigger things like cutting the first sex scene in half and dividing it between the first two parts, with the second half of the sex scene completely recontextualising it. It makes the relationship build and eventual pay-off even more satisfying, as the audience is able to inhabit both Sookee and Hideko’s heads during it and understand on a deeper level how they feel about each other. It gives the movie’s story more life than it would have if it had just being told conventionally and helps to better illustrate Fujiwara’s profound failure to pick-up on what was happening right in front of him. There were blatant signs that his plan was falling apart and that neither Sookee or Hideko was doing what he had set out, but he doesn’t pick up on them…until it’s too late. His male hubris and belief that he’s somehow better than women ends up costing him his dream of “being able to order wine without looking at the price”, and the film’s structure delivers this story in a more satisfying way then the normal three act structure. I only wish more directors would take risks like this, but I know that unfortunately most of them never will.
To conclude, I want more movies like The Handmaiden. I want more movies that are willing to treat LGBTIQ relationships as normal and not objectify any of the participants, instead making their relationship and everything leading up to it that more real. I want more movies that are willing to have LGBTIQ people as heroes and reclaim narratives that overwhelmingly feature heterosexual people. I want more movies that aren’t rigidly locked into the three act structure and instead play around with it and make it their own. And I think this desire is why I’ve seen it so many times over the past two months and why I’ll probably end up watching it many more times on Blu-Ray. While not perfect, The Handmaiden is the best movie of 2016 and will stick with me for many, many years to come.