Maybe forty minutes into Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the fingersmith turned personal maid to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), is forced to cup the groin of Sound Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), with whom she is plotting to con the Japanese/Korean aristocrat out of her money. But Fujiwara, like Sook-hee, is little more than a thief, and, in all honesty, a lousy one. Sook-hee’s dexterity, both literally and figuratively, knows this, and when the two argue about the trajectory of their con, she hurls back, “Stop shoving something so small of yours into my hand.”
Men are garbage, and so is an aristocratic existence. That’s the conceit of Park’s newest piece of delightful trash, a director who is as adept at finding the camp in allegedly art house subjects and turning it to eleven. He is, after all, the same director that had a) a man eat live octopus on screen, b) mashed up Thérèse Raquin with vampires, and c) had Mia Wasikowska very literally come of age (h/t David Ehrlich). At the edge of his frames is a little bit of a wink, but less in a self-serving manner and moreso in a, “This is trash and I hope you love it as much as I do” way.
Couched in dialectics of camp elsewhere and in here is class, and that is, at its core, what The Handmaiden is about. Class aspirations feel, within the context of Victorian and Gothic lit, like a male thing, where the wealthy are so because of a domineering patriarch(y). It’s an infection, one that’s bled across nations in this film, poisoning the mind and the blood. Too true is that here, where Lady Sideko may have her inheritance, but where it exists under the watchful eye of her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) and the fake Count. Hideko, locked up with little to do but practice reading and recitation, seems to have little use for it, a bit bored by the supposed pleasures that money are to give her. Sook-hee is (maybe) awe struck, conversely.
But there is the distinct impression that such bourgeoisie desires are sidelined in favor of something else. What Sook-hee once yearned for becomes the object of feelings not unlike Lady Hideko’s apathy and eventual contempt. There is, beyond the sexual and the erotic, and emotional and intellectual transference between the two, and that amplifies Sook-hee’s desires to be Lady Hideko, rather than to just have what she has.
So the eroticism of The Handmaiden, adapted from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, is identity and class based, transcending the libidinal desires of its leads and its (presumptively) male gaze. Despite of the textural sleekness of its sets, its magical roving camera, and its precisely decorated cast, Park and company roll around in a bit of trash that’s like Purple Noon, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Persona, and Bound had an orgy on a flight from England to Japan to Korea.
In the midst of this knowingly sleazy film is a stroke of earnestness, where its sex and attractions begin to vacillate between somewhat ironic exploitation and sincere adoration. There is injected in this film an authentic thrill to watching them emotionally and sexually con one another and, soon enough, explore their emotional desires. Its streaks of authentic ardor undulate more than its pseudo-pornographic poses.
If Lady Vengeance feels like a better film than Oldboy, which it is, it’s because whatever sense of obligation to a kind of plodding Bergman-esque philosophizing is better suited to when Park plays with it using female characters. It feels less self-serious, better at balancing tone, and Park seems to have a legitimate knack to exploring his female characters’ psychology without treating them necessarily as toys to be tortured endlessly. Some done red eyeshadow and use an axe, others grab a sniper, but Park’s women come out on top.
Thus, the women of The Handmaiden use the tools of the master’s house, as it were, and subsequently topple that house. The lurid pornography is obliterated and the men that originally sought to undermine the women are left to be destroyed by one another. In its own way, it’s a clever little ideological revenge movie, as playfully misandrist as, say, Gone Girl. Pilfer what you need and leave the rest of them to rot in Hell, or at least with a screw in their hand.