Park Chan-wook’s latest film, The Handmaiden, is an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ bestselling novel Fingersmith, with the action transplanted from Victorian London to the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s. As with Fingersmith, the action unfolds in three relatively discrete sections, each of which relates to a central conspiracy, around which the narrative hangs as a whole. How and why this conspiracy evolves is part of the pleasure of the film, but as the first act opens it is presented as a plot between Count Fujiawara (Ha Jung-woo), a Korean con man, and Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a Korean pickpocket, to dupe a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) out of her fortune. On the one hand, Fujiawara is to disguise himself as a Japanese businessman and gain Hideko’s betrothal; on the other hand, Sook-hee is to play the part of her handmaiden, and gather what information she can for Fujiawara while encouraging Hideko to fall in love with him. The last stage in the plan – which is where the first act ends – is for Fujiawara and Hideko to elope to Japan with Sook-hee, where Fujiawara will convert his new wife’s assets, place her in an asylum and then split the proceeds with Sook-hee.
As might be expected, that makes for all kinds of contrasts between Japanese and Korean culture, with the film moving between the two languages so fluidly that the subtitles have to be colour-coded. Often, the only indication of duplicity or conspiratorial complication is a shift from one language to another, as Park paints a powerful portrait of the inextricability of Japanese culture in Korea at this point in time, with most Koreans seeming to both fear and aspire to the austerity of their Japanese occupiers, especially Fujiwara, for whom the conspiracy ultimately seems to be a strategy for making it in Japan. While those cultural differences are brought out by the script and story, they are most powerfully distilled by the mansion where most of the action takes place, run by Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), Hideko’s uncle, who plays a relatively shadowy role in the first act but becomes more prominent in the second and third. Upon arriving, Sook-hee is told that the mansion consists of three wings, each dedicated to Kouzuki’s favourite styles of architecture – Korean, Japanese and English – but for the most part this space plays as a fusion of traditional Japanese and English Gothic architecture, with the Korean infrastructure more or less relegated to the support staff that run and maintain it. In that sense, Japanese architecture forms something of a common denominator between Park and Waters’ respective contexts, creating a shadowy Korean gothic at the point at which they overlap that is initially marginalised almost out of visibility, but eventually descends into an unofficial companion to Park’s Vengeance trilogy of the early 2000s.
As a result, The Handmaiden frequently feels like something of a summative work for Park, since while it touches base with the extremism of his earlier films this also plays as something of an unofficial companion piece to Stoker as well. Where Stoker was Park’s first film in English, Fingersmith is his first film based on an English novel, and yet the resemblances go much farther than that, since the lavish Gothic atmospheres of Stoker are raised to an even higher and more extravagant pitch here, in what may be the lushest and most exquisitely textural film of Park’s career to date. In a strange way, it reminded me of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, not just because every touch and detail is perfectly poised, but because the combination of an East Asian director with such quintessentially English spaces turns the Englishness itself into something oddly exotic, with the film unfolding across the kind of hyperreal versions of itself that England tended to transplant to its colonial fringes. As in Stoker, that hyper-Gothic register oscillates between panoramic and claustrophobic perception, although here it is the sense of confinement that really wins out, as Park moves through a series of increasingly sequestered, cloistered and reticulated spaces – a drawer in a staircase, a shoe cupboard in a wall hollow – as well as favouring compositions that are framed by doors, window, casements and other agents of domestic constriction and containment. At one level, that works to build a classically Gothic sense of space, but it also works to fuse Gothic with Japanese architecture, which also favours nested, recursive spaces, building up a portrait of the inter-war period in which the Japanese presence occupies and oppresses Korea in much the same way as Gothic architecture tends to occupy and oppress its heroines in the eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century novels that Waters draws on for inspiration. In the process, Park deftly captures the particular fear of Japan at this moment in time – a fear of becoming antiquated, of becoming Gothic – but also subsumes the Japanese will to modernise – at Korea’s expense – into the Gothic legacy of World War II as well, jettisoning the central Japanese characters in a strange limbic space that is eerily retrofuturist, straddling the past and the future but rarely quite present in the present.
On the one hand, that imbues the film – and the house – with a steampunk quality, as Kouzuki fits it out with fixture after fixture that is supposed to bring a new technological vision into existence, most notably in and around his library which – like him – plays a fairly reticent role in this part of the film, even though it is clearly in some sense the nerve centre of the house as a whole. This all makes for what might be described as the first main incarnation of the mansion – as an endlessly recursive machine that is quite phallic in its will to continual self-replication but also somewhat oneiric in the way in which it only ever seems to extend further in upon itself rather than expanding into the outward world. While it often seems as if the film might be on the verge of embracing the same rigorously mathematical sense of space, it never quite does, thanks in large part to Park’s camera which – like both Hideko and Sook-hee – is nominally a part of the overall scheme, but also somewhat roving as well, swivelling around and tracking out patterns that always seem as if they’re about to complete the stately geometry of the whole only to elasticise and relax at the last minute into something more sensuous and submerged. If the first version of the house seems to continually replicate itself at smaller and smaller levels, like an architectural fractal, then this second version seems to continually fold in and revise its shape in tandem with the convoluted plot of the film as a whole – or, rather, the involuted plot, since this is a narrative structure that keeps on turning into upon itself to discover newer and more minute levels of complexity.
While that continual involution corresponds to a whole swathe of narrative events, most of them focus on the growing relationship between Hideko and Sook-hee, who gradually become lesbian lovers, although there is no single moment of revelation or epiphany so much as a gradual and almost imperceptible extrapolation of lesbian sex from the formal relationship between a lady and her handmaiden, one of the areas where Park remains steadfastly true to Waters’ vision. As a result, the film has a lesbian eroticism long before we see any actual lesbian sex, as Hideko and Sook-hee try to elude the increasingly microscopic scrutiny of the house by crafting some impossibly secret, nested and complex space of their own. As the mansion is broken down into a series of smaller and smaller boxes, and the two women become more and more confined, their response isn’t exactly to break free to much as to indulge in a different, more dangerous and more sensuous sense of suffocation – the constriction that occurs on the very brink of orgasm, and all the immense spatial and temporal ellipses opened up by orgasm. Whether the lesbian relationship causes this alternative spatial configuration, arises from this alternative spatial figuration, or just syncs up with this alternative spatial configuration, it increasingly feels as if Hideko and Sook-hee have managed to envisage a kind of involuted counterpoint to the recursiveness of the house that initially fixates on the mouth, then absorbs the mouth into the vagina, culminating with an incredible point-of-view shot from what is presumably the clitoris as Sook-hee moves in for her first cunnilingual experience. In a very real way, all the exquisite textures of the film – so inimical to its mechanistic architecture – feel like an extrapolation – or fusion – of the mouth and vagina, while the vagina itself is increasingly envisaged as an almost impossibly complex, cloistered and reticulated room. Among other things, that imbues each shot with what might be described as a kind of vaginal quiver and anticipation, once again creating that sense of almost sighing suffocation that means that Park often seems compelled to cut quite abruptly away from the women whenever they are together, as if something about their rapport and regard for each other is even more unbearably erotic than the fact of witnessing them actually having sex.
If that sounds like a somewhat lurid heterosexual fantasy of lesbian love, then that’s because it is, but the film takes an interesting approach in the second act that addresses that issue and expands upon it in quite fascinating ways. In some sense, this second part is a twist, insofar as we return to the events of the first act only to find that Hideko has been in cahoots with Fujiawara all along and that it is Sook-hee herself who is the real object of the scam. To a certain extent, it’s fascinating to see how Park twists and shapes the story to revise our assumptions of what has gone before, although – to be honest – this is probably the kind of revision that works better on the printed page, since it depends to a large extent on the contrast between Hideko and Sook-hee’s voices, which occasionally intrude as omniscient narration, but can’t possibly hope to aspire the shift from Sue to Maud’s first-person narration in Waters’ original. In order to compensate, then, Park uses this second act as an opportunity to both revise and intensify our perception of the house itself, as well as the aesthetic and stylistic tensions of the first half. On the one hand, the mechanistic overtones of the house are taken to their logical conclusion, as we are finally introduced properly to Kouzuki and his library, by way of a flashback to Hideko’s childhood and her relationship with her aunt (So-ri Moon), who is never named, but who raises Hideko almost single-handedly while performing some kind of odd service for Kouzuki. For a while it is unclear exactly what this involves, except that it encompasses a whole variety of Japanese formal entertainments – from kabuki to geishadom – and seems to centre on pornography or prostitution in some way. As this act proceeds, it becomes gradually clearer that Kouzuki has assembled a world-class collection of pornography and has trained his wife to recite it in just the right pitch and intonation to satisfy his clients, some of whom come to buy books, some of whom come to listen to these recitations and some of whom come to indulge in sado-masochistic activities with Hideko’s aunt that are hinted at but never fully explained. It is as one of these clients that Fujiawara first meets Kouzuki, who gives him a tour of the premises that ends up being our summative vision of how things operate as well, as the structure of the mansion suddenly discloses itself as a summary of everything that is intensely ceremonial and everything that is intensely fetishistic about traditional Japanese culture – or, rather, the utter inextricability of the ceremonial and the fetishistic in traditional Japanese culture, with both proclivities seeming to spontaneously generate and amplify each other as this act proceeds.
In the process, all the mechanistic overtones of the house converge and condense it into one giant machine for subjugating and enslaving women, an infernal Sadean device that leads onto one final space: the dungeon beneath the library that is glimpsed here just as the library was glimpsed in the first act, but whose full import is left for the third and final section of the film. In the meantime, the action flashes back to the present, with Hideko now forced to impress Kouzuki’s clients after her aunt is sent to the dungeon for trying to escape. While Hideko may not know quite what awaits her if she tries to pursue the same path, it’s not hard to extrapolate from the torture devices that are increasingly brought into her recitations, all of which straddle an odd line between sexual exhibitionism and a more brutal and mechanical manipulation of her body that just makes the refined and restrained aesthetic detachment of her clients all the more perverse. Yet while this act may present the mechanistic, or sadistic, side of the house in a more intensified way, it also intensifies the involuted vaginal space opened up as a reprieve by Hideko and Sook-hee in the first act as well. For while Hideko initially treats Sook-hee as a means to an end – a way of escaping her uncle – she gradually starts to fall for her despite the conspiracy, much as the same way Sook-hee fell for her despite what she thought was the conspiracy, creating a kind of double twist whereby the two women’s love for each other turns out to have been authentic all along. While that may come as a surprise it also feels inevitable – like the best twists – insofar as Park’s recapitulation of the first act frequently feels more like an involution than a revision in the traditional sense. Rather than playing as an extension or development of the first act, the second act simply feels as if it is slotted or concealed within it, as if it were only by adopting this unusual and somewhat artificial narrative structure that Park could access the impossibly complex and reticulated vaginal spaces opened by the opening in the first place. While the second act may feature more explicit and graphic sex, it only seems to sequester us even further within the vaginal spaces it purportedly externalises and visualises, creating a kind of double bind whereby every effort to penetrate or probe this most intimate of spaces just causes it to fold in over itself and evoke an ever greater depth and complexity.
In other words, the lesbian vagina is presented as something of a mystically impenetrable space – or, rather, a space that penetrates, rather than being penetrated – as Park displaces his efforts to visually penetrate it onto a narrative structure that continually removes it even as it promises to come close to it, as if this illusion of penetration were the nearest one might come to conceptualising its own penetrative powers. As a result, the narrative complexity of the film is utterly inextricable from its erotic economy as a whole, to the point where the vagina isn’t merely envisaged as a space but as an impossibly complex, involuted and nested narrative device, the very opposite of the linear, clear-spoken and rigidly expository pornography with which Kouzuki fills his collection. Simply by virtue of its place in the story, the opening act comes to feel more erotic than we had ever realised at the time – as if this vaginal space could only be glimpsed retrospectively, or its presence only ever felt as a fleeting absence – leading to the third part of the film, which follows Sook-hee and Hideko’s escape to Japan, but which really feels centred in Kouzuki’s capture of Fujiwara and entrapment of him in his dungeon. One of the great ironies of the film is that even as this vaginal horizon becomes more and more remote, more and more anterior, the architectural logic of the mansion becomes more and more constrained, as if it trying to capture something that has always already eluded it, and the dungeon intensifies and condenses the library in the third act much as the library intensified and condensed the house as a whole in the second act. Moreover, just as female sexuality was more circumscribed by men in the second act – we went from Fujiawara’s conspiratorial agency to Kouzuki’s exploitative agency – so the third act sees Kouzuki and Fujiawara standing off in a ghastly space whose only residues of the female body are the dismembered vaginas that line the walls in preservative fluid – remainders of some fetishistic activity too horrible for even Park to conceptualise – as well as a giant octopus in a ridiculously small tank, whose own involutions and defiance of any kind of penetrative visuality feels like a surrogate for the vaginal cloisters that have caused such anxiety and agony for these men over the course of the narrative.
Given how thoroughly Park has managed to translate Waters’ twist into cinematic narrative, it feels right that he largely departs from her at this point in the film for a sequence that is more than worthy of the torture porn extremity of his Vengeance trilogy. Indeed, the conclusion of The Handmaiden could almost play as Sympathy for Ladies Vengeance, since while Hideko and Sook-hee are long gone, it is they who deliver Fujiawara up to Kouzuki, who proceeds to dismember his fingers with his bookbinder and then lurches forward to cut off his penis, only to be thwarted by a last ditch effort from his victim, which ends up killing them both. Although this scene is both confronting and absurd, it feels like the logical conclusion of the recitations in the second act, which have now been purified by the reduction of the women to allure (the octopus) and functionality (the dismembered vaginas), with the sado-masochistic negotiations left to play themselves out between these two men, who initially met and bonded while discussing a whipped pair of female buttocks whose femininity was as peremptorily and cursorily disregarded as it is here. While it might seem too easy to say that this clarifies the entire pornographic enterprise as a kind of deflected homoeroticism, there is nevertheless a sense that the peculiar nexus between ceremony and fetishism that typifies the house as a whole is, ultimately, a way of maintaining and negotiating regard between men, which is of course what makes the Japanese way of life – and its “cruelty” – so appealing to Fujiawara in the first place. In the strangest of ways, then, Park takes the Japanese occupation of Korea to what might be described as its pornographic conclusion, as well as providing a kind of historical backdrop to the extremities that haunt so many of his earlier releases, making for one of the most urgent and galvanising films in his career to date – a poetic testament to the traces that an occupying power can leave on the body of its hosts, even if those traces only announce themselves years, decades and even centuries later.