How Did You Survive?
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Chan-wook Park
Things start to become complicated for Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) when she is giving the mistress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) she serves as a maid a bath. In order to pacify her patron during the slow process of cleaning her body, she offers Lady Hideko a lollipop. Hideko complains of a tooth in her mouth, and in the minutes-long scene that follows, Sook-Hee inserts her thumb in and out of Hideko’s jaw to smooth the sharp tooth with a scraper.
Legendary South Korean director Chan-wook Park is known for intersections like these — those which could be played for laughs, but instead fall into a grey area where they become absorbing as actual moments. In his masterpiece Oldboy there is a scene where the protagonist eats a live octopus that is similarly wild without becoming amusing. There are many humorous moments in his adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, but the core relationship between a woman and her servant is never treated with anything but the utmost seriousness.
Chan-wook Park decided to make a Hollywood film with 2013’s Stoker. Written by Wentworth Miller, the resulting picture was about as silly as his South Korean noirs, and watching international actors in his familiar style was great fun. Sadly the movie, which starred Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska among others, never achieved nearly the audience it should have.
The Handmaiden gives Park a more heady eroticism to work around. He is the master of how audio cues alarm and excite us, and watching two pert Korean women share a bed becomes a cacophony of swells, sucking, and other substantial sounds. Sook-Hee’s job to is convince Lady Hideko to marry a fellow con-artist so that he can commit her to an insane asylum and the two can make off with all their money.
Naturally, Sook-Hee and Hideko fall in love. The art direction by frequent collaborator Ryu Seong-hie frames every scene of The Handmaiden perfectly. Despite being shot mainly on one Japanese estate like Stoker, even interiors retain their complicated composition without becoming overly busy. Sook-Hee meets with her collaborator under spare branches that frame an endless walking path. As in most of Park’s work, the aesthetic composition of someone’s surroundings tends to reflect whatever inner struggle dogs them.
The two con-artists and their mark spend the summer in a Japanese bungalow far above a lush jungle. As Count Fujiwara, Jung-Woo Ha is the Korean Peter Sellers — completely serious in one moment and mugging for Sook-Hee the next. Park turns even the slow pace of a novel meant to ape a Victorian one into a plot that spins forward so quickly we feel like the mark ourselves.
Oldboy was a Korean film based on a popular Japanese manga about a drunk who is imprisoned for fifteen years in a private prison without knowing why. Spike Lee remade the film with Josh Brolin for some reason and it was a tremendous bomb. Lee’s remake was stylistically very fun, but perhaps too dedicated to Park’s original to truly feel like its own story. In both versions of the tale, the best part occurs during the main character’s imprisonment, when he feels hatred as well as an absurd wonder for his own unexpected plight.
There is a long sequence in The Handmaiden explaining the elaborate backstory of Lady Hideko that feels much like this. As a young girl, Hideko is made to serve her uncle, who is a character sort of akin to Count Rugen in The Princess Bride. Hideko’s aunt and carer hangs herself from a cherry blossom tree, and even in a lavish house, Hideko feels much like Oh Dae-Su in Oldboy. Park cycles through a litany of familiar Japanese imagery to identify the various sexual proclivities which comprise a corrupting element. This culminates in an unforgettable scene where Hideko is entangled with a wooden dummy while suspended in the air. She is the focus of a general, universal desire. “I could perish happily knowing that I tasted you,” Sook-hee admits to her at one point before scissoring.
The Handmaiden is, however, missing the discursiveness that Oldboy embraced at times: the sense that one subject might relate to each other more by association than it ever could directly. Instead it is tightly wrapped around itself, repeating scenes and moments from different perspectives until we understand them in a completely new way each time. This approach gives The Handmaiden the deepening qualities of the best fiction, and gives the story a texture it never achieved in any other form. The truth comes undone like a tightly woven braid.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.