Nothing Up Their Sleeves - The Handmaiden


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Please note: this article contains spoilers.

With a story revolving around the intricacies of the long con, it seems appropriate that few films readily evade precise classification in the way that The Handmaiden does.  With its casual shifts in narrative voice and easy mix of genres and time periods, it dons and doffs its various guises in a way that evokes not merely the confidence tricksters who populate the film, but a magician in the vein of Méliès, whose work is rooted in the trickery of the close-up and the cleverness of the impossible escape.

Three-Card Monte

At its core, The Handmaiden is a period drama - but, as one has learned to expect from director Park Chan-wook, it is one with a hard, unforgiving edge.  In translating the Victorian-era story of Sue and Maud from Sarah Waters' 2002 novel, Fingersmith, to that of Sookee and Lady Hideko in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s, Park repeats a trick he first tried out in 2009 film Thirst, where Émile Zola's authentically 19th-century Thérèse Raquin was brought up to the present day (throwing in a few vampire priests for good measure).

In taking a novel written in the 21st century about the 19th and shifting it to the 20th, Park and co-writer Chung Seo-kyung are able to anchor their story in a specific historical moment, yet simultaneously create a heightened sense of distance between either of Fingersmith's realities and the world in which The Handmaiden exists.  This trick of temporal misdirection gives Park free reign as director to indulge his predilection for gleefully intricate puzzles interspersed with baroque cruelties (as in his trademark 'Vengeance Trilogy' [2002-2005]), whilst also allowing the story to develop in the freeflowing, novelistic style of more recent work such as Thirst and Stoker (2013).

Following on from their extremes, The Handmaiden seems to land squarely in the middle, balancing Park's previous polarities as it delivers its own payoffs whilst maintaining a compelling hold on character and drama - something heightened even more in the film's extended cut.

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Sleight of Hand

Of the many aspects jettisoned from Waters' novel, the strongest affinity The Handmaiden shares with its source is its preservation of the central lesbian storyline.  Whether the film also remains loyal to the spirit of this, or whether it becomes something akin to lesbian pickpocket fanfic (as the Village Voice dubs it [1]), is more debatable.

Tellingly, the film shares several characteristics with fellow Cannes film Blue Is the Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013): both are epic arthouse tales adapted from source novels by women; both feature a sexual awakening and blossoming romance between two women.  And it can't be complete coincidence that the male directors of both films sought specifically to pair for their two leads a more experienced actor and a relative newcomer, each seeking to engineer in real life something of the fantasy of initiation simultaneously being depicted onscreen.

Like Blue Is the Warmest Colour's Ghalya Lacroix, The Handmaiden's co-author finds herself largely erased from most discussions of the film as an auteur piece by Park.  Indeed, it is interesting - and here I use the word in its sense of 'remarkably frustrating but not surprising' - that, like Lacroix, it is all but impossible to find any substantial information about Chung online.  She is entirely left out of the film's various press kits, and there seems to be almost no discussion of her in previous interviews with Park despite their having collaborated on all but one of his features since 2005's Lady Vengeance.

If Chung Seo-kyung's work has at last been highlighted in several interviews for The Handmaiden, it is notable that Park only mentions her in the context of crafting the women characters in the film rather than for the film a whole - though he has also revealed the close working practices between the two, to the extent of sitting 'literally together and actually shar[ing] one computer and two keyboards' [2] throughout the entire writing process.  Yet, despite mentions [2, 3] that various drafts of the screenplay were discussed with and approved of by a number of 'queer women' (consistently referred to by Park, curiously, as friends of Chung's rather than of his or of them both), it is also clear from these that any substantial creative input from women, queer or otherwise, ended at the screenplay stage.

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Escape Artists

There are several signposts throughout the film which would seem to flag The Handmaiden as a potential feminist piece.  There is the depiction of gaslighting, shown here - as in both Fingersmith and the similarly Victorian-set films which gave name to the practice (Gaslight, dir. Thorold Dickinson, 1940, and dir. George Cukor, 1944) - as the attempt to gradually psychologically manipulate a woman towards insanity.  And there is the central story arc of two women who rebel against the machinations of a patriarchal structure, ultimately working together to bring about its downfall.

And yet The Handmaiden is also a getaway drama of the highest order - and, appropriately, though often coming within sight of overarching feminist themes, its characters just manage to slip free of them in the end.  While, for instance, there is clear (perhaps oversimplified) vilification of the ongoing practice whereby Hideko's uncle grooms her into becoming the narrator of various pornographic fantasies for male audiences, it becomes increasingly difficult not to see the film as itself complicit in variations on these selfsame fantasies.

Which draws out the final of the film's several identities: as a mystery thriller that keeps its audience guessing as to which of its characters will escape the fearsomely Parkian fate that lies in store for them.  And though it seems as if Hideko ultimately slips the bounds of her uncle's tyrannical erotic empire, the film's parting shots imply that she and Sookee may end up carrying out their existence in such a way that could almost have been written by him.  In the end, this depiction of two women acting out the desires of a male author serves neatly as a representation of The Handmaiden within the film itself - which is, perhaps, its finest (and most devious) trick.

Marc David Jacobs

freelance arts worker

31st March 2017

 


[1] Bilge Ebiri, 'Lesbian Pickpocket Fanfic: Park Chan-wook on His Sensual Adaptation "The Handmaiden"', http://www.villagevoice.com/fi...

[2] Daniela Costa, 'Director Park Chan-wook on "The Handmaiden" and the "More Romantic" Extended Version', http://www.afterellen.com/movi...

[3] Rich Juzwiak, 'A Chat With Park Chan-wook About Adapting Sarah Waters' Fingersmith into the Lesbian Thriller The Handmaiden', http://themuse.jezebel.com/a-c...

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