If you want to make a powerful feminist movie, it’s always good to start with a strong female point of view. But if you really want to topple the patriarchy, take a page from Korean director Chan-wook Park and include a shot from the viewpoint of an actual vagina. It’s got to be the first of its kind, but it is somehow right at home in Park’s sexy, hilarious, wildly original, and occasionally frustrating The Handmaiden.
The film continues Park’s habit of incorporating different styles and influences into a satisfying package. An early bit of dialogue describes a gorgeous estate as a mix of architectural influences, reflecting the owner’s “admiration for both Japan and England.” That’s the movie, too. It takes a classic American archetype—the con man—and subverts it over and over again. Not only is the real con artist in The Handmaiden not a man, she may not even be pulling a con.
In 1930s Korea, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) is a young player in the schemes of Count Fujiwara (Jung-Woo Ha), a swindler who indoctrinates women into his employ from birth. His latest con involves seducing Lady Hideko, a wealthy young woman (Min-Hee Kim) away from her lecherous Uncle Kouzuki, marrying her, and then committing her to a mental institution (called a “mad house” because it’s that kind of a film). Confident but not cocky, he hedges his bets by placing Sook-Hee at her side as her handmaiden, so that she can consistently sing his praises and urge her to marry him.
Visually, The Handmaiden feels like a culmination of the baroque style Park has honed in films like Oldboy and Stoker. Every shot is both ornately designed and packed with meaning. Early shots invoke a prison, with characters framed between lines, boxes, and points that comprise the visual grandeur of Kozuki’s home. Escape only comes in the burgeoning passion between Fujiwara and Hideko. It starts out timidly—and esoterically—enough, with Hideko’s handmaiden filing down one of her teeth. Only a delightfully perverse mind like Park’s could turn such a mundane activity into the seeds of a sexual affair.
Of course he doesn’t stop there. We’ve still got that sentient vagina to get to. As the love affair blossoms, Park can’t help but linger on the female forms at his disposal, contorting them into every shape in the Kama Sutra. The sex scenes are sumptuously filmed and mostly gratuitous. Like in 2014’s Blue is the Warmest Color, the physical attraction between its female leads drives the plot, so an argument can be made for the frank sexuality and nudity, but there is a literal objectification at play in The Handmaiden that undercuts its key dynamic.
The Handmaiden unfolds in three acts, and each one has a delicious, impactful turn at its end that furthers the film’s feminist subtext. In turn, the once-demure Sook-Hee and Hideko turn the tables on their male oppressors, but how seriously can we take the film’s rejection of systematic male oppression when it so blatantly objectifies its women? The Handmaiden may be a gorgeous film to watch, but every time Park uses his actresses and their body parts as props, something inside you will want to look away.
The Handmaiden opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.