There are quite a few things that confused me about The Handmaiden. Firstly I went into the cinema thinking this was an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’ve read about but never actually read. From what I have read about that book, rather than having read it, I take it to be a quite serious post-apocalyptic tale, with, perhaps, an eco-friendly subtext, along with a feminist, or at least female orientated narrative. (It might have none of these things, as I say, I’ve never read it.) The opening scene, where Japanese troops marched through a Korean village, felt as though it fitted into Park Chan-Wook’s reimagining of Atwood’s tale. Although from then on it seemed to veer further and further away. There is nothing post-apocalyptic about The Handmaiden, nothing eco-friendly either, and I’d be really interested to hear anyone try to defend it as a feminist text, in spite of the fact that the narrative might be construed that way.
As it it, the film is actually based on Sarah Walter’s Fingersmith, which is, as they say, nada que ver. I haven’t read that either so the issue of the adaptation can now be dismissed. However, the second thing that confused me concerned the dichotomy between the film’s narrative and Chan-Wook’s direction of said narrative. The narrative is in large part constructed around the story of an old man who collects classic obscene literature (’Is that Sade?’ someone asks at one point), and invites selected men to come and listen to these rare classics being read by his fetching niece. That same niece is also the object of a scurrilous plan hatched by one of the men who visits and befriends her uncle. He hatches a plan to marry her and claim her fortune, and enlists a young Korean servant girl to work as the niece’s handmaiden. The handmaiden and the niece end up in a frisky relationship. My confusion arose because as the narrative develops it’s made very clear that the uncle is essentially a dirty old man whose pornographic collection is viewed as an object of scorn. The logic here is that pornography is bad. On the other hand, the director more than makes the most of the two women’s lesbian relationship. With shades of Blue is the Warmest Colour, Chan-Wook documents their intercourse with a degree of relish which ultimately, especially in the closing shots, ends up feeling like soft porn. The film appears to be arguing that porn is the stuff of dirty old men, unless it’s being filmed by the director, in which case it’s artistically valid. Maybe there’s a subtlety I missed.
Having said all that, the storytelling is great, and although there’s little of the edge or dramatic tension that was present in his earlier works, there’s still a considerable amount of cinematic flair in evidence. The narrative structure is presumably lifted from the book, but Chan-Wook nevertheless makes it feel fresh and clever in a way so little cinematic storytelling tends to be. (Unlike in fiction, where structural ingenuity is far more common.) There’s a charm to the director’s use of period and the acting has a slightly operatic quality which seems entirely appropriate. It’s an entertaining yarn. Albeit a confusing one. Perhaps Park Chan-Wook is poking fun at the novelist’s feminism? Wiser heads than mine will no doubt be able to explain what exactly his intentions were.