The Austin Chronicle

The Handmaiden's Tale

Sex, lies, and secrets in the U.S. premiere of Park Chan-wook's latest

By Richard Whittaker, September 23, 2016, Screens

Madness. Depravity. Violence. From his epic Vengeance trilogy to his lurid English-language debut Stoker, South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook has become a master of high Gothic. Yet for his latest he truly embraces the romance aspect of Gothic romance with The Handmaiden. So while his trademark horrors are there, he said, "This film is a love story."

Park's latest feature is an adaptation of Sarah Waters' 2002 historical literary potboiler Fingersmith: the twisted yarn of a dark conspiracy surrounding captive orphan Maud, and the sinister plan by a dashing seducer and his accomplice to inveigle her and steal her inheritance. In The Handmaiden, scripted by Park and his longtime collaborator Chung Seo-kyung (Thirst, Lady Vengeance), the setting of Victorian London is swapped for Korea during the early 20th century Japanese Occupation. Korean pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is indentured as the personal servant to isolated Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee): Her task is to convince Hideko to fall for trickster Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), so that he can steal her fortune. The plan becomes derailed when Sook-hee finds herself falling for her ward, and her emotions are seemingly reciprocated.

The change of time and location, Park explained via a translator, was for "a very basic reason." The story is dependent on the class divide between the two female protagonists, but – as was a constant in Victorian melodrama – the shadow of the insane asylum hangs long over the narrative. With those requirements, he said, "I found myself coming out with the Japanese-occupied era as being the first time in the history of Korea where those two elements could exist."

The translation retains the underlying tension between the two young women found in the book. Their relationship as maid and mistress gives them physical intimacy but comes laden with class division. However, Park said, "I wanted to put a bigger gap between the two characters for them to have to overcome. Part of that was making their age gap a little bigger than it was in the original novel, and another part was to have them come from different nationalities. That would provide a bigger divide that they had to bridge, especially considering the time period."

As anyone that has seen the infamous hammer massacre in Oldboy knows, Park is known for graphic violence. By contrast, The Handmaiden features his most explicit sex scenes to date. He said, "I took a great amount of care with those scenes and considered again and again how I should depict them. ... We are talking about love between two women and, especially in the mass media to date, female desire has been treated as if it didn't exist." As such, the intimacy between Sook-hee and Hideko needed to be there and truthful: "To avoid the depiction of the physical expression of love would be even more strange." If he had shied away from presenting the most intimate and erotic moments of their relationship, he said, "You will only give the audience the impression that the film is carefully avoiding something."

Yet Sook-hee and Hideko are not the only characters who find themselves trapped within the cultural restrictions of the era. There is also Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), Hideko's uncle and captor, whose mysterious library holds a sinister secret. Park said he and production designer Ryu Seong-hie constructed the library, and the whole house that surrounds it as a complex metaphor for "Japanese sympathizers, those pro-Japanese Koreans during the occupation. They found everything Japanese to be superior, and try to mimic and come close to that." Kouzuki's house is part Japanese, part Western in design (a nod to the fascination with European design among Japanese intellectuals of the era, a mirror of sorts to Western Orientalism). Park described it as "not the intake of culture at a sophisticated level, but a very rudimentary and mechanical mish-mash. ... This is a grotesque, almost comical fusion of the Western and Japanese style. It represents the internal landscape of the mind of these pro-Japanese sympathizers during this time, when modernity was forced into Korean society."

The most tragic component of the house are the servant's quarters. Park said he and Ryu conceived of it as the original, distinctly architecturally Korean part of the complex, and that it was Kouzuki's original home. "As he rose in power and wealth, he was able to construct all these buildings to his liking, and he gave his old house to his servants. To say that's how much Kouzuki despised his origins as a Korean."

Hideko, Sook-hee, Kouzuki, Fujiwara, all are attempting to escape their pasts and the strictures of their ordained roles. Yet Park saw different ends for them than what Waters wrote in the novel. He said "Even before I had finished reading the whole book, especially when I was reading the part about Maud's childhood, I, as a reader, really found myself rooting for there to be some kind of happy ending for this little girl." Using the novel's first two acts as his springboard, his third act takes the characters to whole new destinies – ones he feels will still satisfy. "I felt as a filmmaker I would make the film and change the story in a way that, as a reader reading the novel, he or she was hoping would happen."

The Handmaiden

Thu., Sept. 22, 8:30pm
Wed., Sept. 28, 5:30pm

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