Immaculate Liberation (The Handmaiden review)
There isn’t much glory in going after the familiar – it is only in taking risks that we are capable of experiencing the true rewards of life. When we become liberated from our expectations, that is a very unique way to become capable and fearless.
When we experience love, we can see easily how hate can exist, but the true enemy of life is not death as Elie Wiesel says, it’s indifference.
The Handmaiden (2016)
Cast: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo
Director: Chan-wook Park
released on blu-ray January 24, 2017
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%, Audience Score 92%
The Guardian: ***/*****
Park Chan-wook (or Chan-wook Park) is a South Korean film director, screenwriter, producer, and former film critic. Considered to be one of the most acclaimed film makers of South Korea, Park is known for the Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance), Joint Security Area, Thirst, and now The Handmaiden.
Park is particularly skilled at employing dark humour, capturing detailed scenes, and the intensity of his storytelling – The Handmaiden is a perfect case study for these traits and one of my favourite foreign language films from 2016. But let’s go over the plot to get a better sense of why I personally enjoyed it… Because this movie is really interesting, though a bit disarming to my particular palette.
Separated into three parts and set in 1930s Korea, The Handmaiden tells the story of con artist Sookee (Tae-ri Kim). Korea is under Japanese occupation, and Sookee is hired as a handmaiden to Japanese heiress Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Hideko lives with her Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) in a large estate and is being courted by the Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha).
Part 1 – Fujiwara is a conman who has hired Sookee from a group of con artists to help him seduce Hideko. He will then marry Hideko, commit her to an insane asylum and take her inheritance. Sookee poses as Tamako and slowly gains Hidekos trust. Hideko is haunted by her aunts suicide, hesitant to marry Fujiwara, and is willing to share her jewellery, clothes and shoes with Tamako. At one point Tamako makes love to Hideko, intending to convince Hideko that her new husband will do the same, but love is unfolding between them. Fujiwara and Hideko marry, consummate their marriage, and then travel to the asylum with Tamako in hand. But Sookee is taken by the staff and told she is in fact Hideko – she has been swindled.
Part 2 – We learn of Hideko’s backstory. Her aunt is her teacher but very stern and physical discipline is common. Kouzuki has a large library of erotica in his basement, and puts on readings for aristocrats which are read by his wife: Eventually Hideko’s aunt hangs herself from this abuse. Kouzuki implies to Hideko that he had murdered his wife, and as Hideko grows up she takes her aunts place. Under different terms, Kouzuki hires Fujiwara as an art forger to replace art in his erotica collection – Fujiwara is smitten with Hideko and offers to remove her from her lifestyle by conning a handmaiden into helping them marry, and once they’ve claimed the inheritence, to have the handmaiden take Hideko’s identity and be committed to an asylum.
Hideko goes along with this at first, but builds real feelings for Sookee. On the night they make love, Hideko breaks down and exclaims she cannot marry Fujiwara. Sookee protests, and Hideko decides to hang herself from the same tree that her aunt did, but is saved at the last second by Sookee. Sookee confesses to the plan she made with Fujiwara, and Hideko shares the double-cross. The two women decides to get revenge on Kouzuki and Fujiwara, destroying Kouzuki’s library before the marriage night.
Part 3 – Thinking he has won Fujiwara talks about his plans with new wife Hideko. Sookee escapes the asylum with help from her family, and Fujiwara forces himself on Hideko but she knocks him out with an opiate she had on hand for suicide in case their intial scheme failed. Hideko and Sookee reunite and flee the country, while Kouzuki tracks down Fujiwara, brings him back to his estate and begins to torture him. Fujiwara tricks Kouzuki into letting him smoke his blue cigarettes, which are laced with mercury, and both men are killed from the gas.
Pros: A tale as old as time, both love story and revenge flick, the details and delivery are what separate this from the more common offerings we are used to. The perversion is disruptive at first, but as you sit with the story and work through it, it’s clear it couldn’t have been done any other way.
Cons: It does drag a bit in the middle, and I’ll admit that I lost focus at the moment it is revealed why Kouzuki’s wife committed suicide and how Hideko came to hate him. There is also a scene that is played and replayed over from different angles unnecessarily.
Runtime: 2 hours 24 minutes
Points of Interest: Both Japanese and Korean were spoken by the (mostly) Korean cast. For the lesbian lovemaking scenes between the two female leads, crew members were asked to leave set and only a female staff holding the boom microphone was present. The scenes were filmed with a remote controlled camera.
Without having a ton of experience with “foreign language films”, I’ve slowly been immersing myself more and more into these uncharted waters. To clarify what I mean by this statement is that it is crucial to watch films more directly, without the filter of your native tongue. If you need somewhere to start, choose The Handmaiden. I would echo the words of director Leos Carax
Foreign-language films are made
all over the world, of course, except in America. In America, they only make
Foreign-language films are very hard to make,
obviously, because you have to invent a foreign language instead of using the
usual language. But the truth is, cinema is a foreign language, a language
created for those who need to travel to the other side of life. Good
In short, this movie blows Fifty Shades of Grey out of the water. It has intense sexual attraction, themes of love and eroticism, female sexuality viewed without the lens of male expectation. It is surprising, violent, passionate and all at once present. Liberation is important, but it takes exposure to the unfamiliar. That’s my theory anyway.