Fresh from the dome, I had the pleasure of experiencing film auteur Chan-wook Park’s latest, ‘The Handmaiden’. My first impression of the film was that it starts immediately, and you’re introduced to one of third main character; the handmaiden. From there on, the audience becomes witness of a piece from a bigger picture of one character’s perspective, much like the notorious theatre work ‘Sleep No More’. It is a reminiscent of the story telling of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon…in its own respect. First third of the story follows the Handmaiden, Sookee, aka Tamako, hired to make sure lady Hideko falls in love with the Count; a con job to take Hideko’s fortune. Then it catches up to Hideko’s back story, and her struggles of being raised to please the men in her society. And finally, the film ends with the Count’s part of the story, and his own personal vendetta to the Japanese occupation. Each and every one of their story begins with a bitter and vengeful taste in their mouths. The atmosphere is set grimly as any of Chan-wook Park’s previous work, as Sookee is introduced to the life of a Handmaiden. Her journey into the house itself is immense and deep. We are warned as Sookee is told that the house, like the real story, is still yet to come. Meanwhile, Sookee introduces herself as a master thief, and how she is ready to deceive lady Hideko. As bitter as she is to the rest of the world, the direction she approaches everything in her new world is filled with innocence. The entire setting reminds me of Tarantino’s ‘Hateful Eight’. It very much falls into a 3 act play, possibly even 9 act, a courageous approach to new age cinema. I also couldn’t stop comparing the film to one of Oscar Wilde’s early tragic plays, where each character filled with their own vengeance and self-fulfillment. Sookee’s goal is straight from the start. She wants to make her cut from the con and leave rich so she can leave Imperial Japan’s Josun Korea. And that goal is the same for the rest of the two characters. They all want an escape from what is reality; and greed for money is the way out. However, as soon as Sookee lay her eyes on lady Hideko, our puritan heroine falls in love with her. And from there on, we witness Sookee’s dark satire. A Josun Korean servant’s obsession with their imperial rulers. In its own sadistic way, a Master and Servant relationship. Then to the audience’s surprise, comes lady Hideko’s life, and how she grew up in captivity to perverted old men. She was trained from an early age to read and enunciated properly of pornographic text to these old men and she, much like the handmaiden, is a woman trapped in a world men try to control. The rest of the film coming from the perspective of the Count, supports a strong case of feminism, where the men of the film are portrayed as sadistic and ruthless, while lady Hideko and the handmaiden’s love is primitive and innocent.
The theme of the story, as introduced from Sookee’s reminder to the con job: ‘Do deceivers really fall in love?’. But what makes a ‘deceiver’? Is it the fact that all three of the characters are trying to deceive each other? Or are the two heroines hiding themselves from who they truly are? And if so, is it true love? Lady Hideko and Sookee question their love through out the film, while the Count is very sure of himself that there will be no love between lady Hideko and him. Much like the troubled old men that come to watch lady Hideko speak perverted dialogue, there is a strange notion of BDSM culture as the count is tortured to speak of the details of his sexual relationship with lady Hideko. The visual symbolism from the get-go of the film, comprises of lady Hideko’s house, her bell, her doll, and her non-sapphire earring. Throughout the film, we are reminded of Hideko’s bell, and her doll. The bell representing the love that she has been expecting from the sexual texts that she was forced to read, the doll of how she is not in control of her own life, and the non-sapphire earring, as materialism means nothing to her other than for deception.
I am thoroughly impressed with the film’s direction. From his previous films, I expected a definitive style from the famed director, and he delivered. Except, he introduces us to an ancient form of storytelling that has been forgotten to us in our modern day. A main A-plot that’s short and simple, but when told through multiple character’s own perspective, achieves meaning and depth. There has been many attempts at tackling such storytelling. Ever since ‘Rashomon’ I saw many international films trying to do the same. I respect Tarantino’s ‘Hateful Eight’ for the same reason. He had created a spectacle of a play. One room, one main plot, yet many different perspectives. I loved it. However, ‘The Handmaiden’, achieves all of what Tarantino and Kurosawa had planned to do, and yet more. There is an emotional attachment to the characters. A true longing for the heroines to be together. As much as I enjoyed Samuel Jackson’s character’s story in the ‘Eight’ , the whole setting and the character depth of ‘The Handmaiden’ truly strives for greatness in storytelling. The film was long as fuck, but the experience of ‘Sleep No More’ in film form is unforgettable.