Violence in cinema is taken as second nature, an inherent and inseparable aspect of the screen, impervious to the criticism of moralistic detractors or the censor’s cut. Sex on the other hand is as limp and lame onscreen as it ever was, a flash of boob or *gasp* pubic hair nearly always earning a film a 15 or 18 rating far quicker than a 100 dead bodies. Not only that, but so few filmmakers seem confident portraying sex onscreen. Every second director seems to be able to put together an effective gunfight, a tiny handful seem to know what to do with human flesh. This despite the fact that most of us have more experience of one than the other; one of the most high-profile LBGT films of recent years for example, Blue is the Warmest Colour, also had one of the coldest and most sterile sex scenes too, draining the energy from an otherwise excellent film.
But with The Handmaiden we have Park Chan-Wook, South Korea’s primary purveyor of ultraviolence, opting to translate and transplant Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith from 19th century England to 1930’s Japan-occupied Korea. Considering his films tend to have a certain coldness and intellectual distance to them – even his most well-known work, Oldboy is predominantly an intellectual probing of the brutalising nature of revenge than an emotional one – one can be forgiven for wondering how The Handmaiden manages to be as sensuous and tender as it does, but the truth is, in the hands of a director as technically accomplished as Park, who leaves barely any detail unturned, it’s no surprise. The central romance, between two women, one Korean and one Japanese, is handled gracefully amidst the film’s utterly labyrinthine plot, loaded with double-crosses and reveals and shifting points-of-view. Half the pleasure is watching that plot unfold in its own time.
Korean cinema has traditionally never featured much in the way of LBGT characters nor has it ever drawn the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula as anything other than a straight battle between good and evil. For the most part The Handmaiden focuses specifically on the performance of identity: one of the recurring motifs is of Korean elites who collaborated with the Japanese and attempt to assimilate into Japanese society, but there is also, of course, the performativity of the two protagonists having to feign heterosexuality, and the central deception vital to the film’s plot. Every scene reveals a new piece of information, constantly changing the perception of previous events, as if the plot’s architecture were built out of Lego blocks that were constantly being put together in different ways.
For all Park’s brilliance as a pure director, The Handmaiden does ultimately suffer from that aforementioned career-long coldness. Much of his oeuvre displays a methodical, Hitchcockian approach to the cinema, and The Handmaiden luxuriates fetishistically in its gorgeous surfaces, from the soft texture of a glove to the tightness of a corset. There is tenderness in the film, but it’s kept at a distance from the audience, as if not even we are allowed to ever see the real protagonists, as if they are hiding their true selves even from us, forever avoiding the audience’s probing, voyeuristic demands. Maybe that’s the point.
words FEDOR TOT