Only a cosmic Freudian could have cooked up the fact that Park Chan-wook’s new film, The Handmaiden, is based on a book by the Welsh novelist Sarah Waters. Water, after all, has long served as Park’s emblem for the maddening fluidity of images and desire. It can act as a mirror, reflecting yourself back at you, but only when relegated to a condition of stasis. Several of Park’s bad guys keep small, square, decorative pools of it under floor panels in their fancy houses, sliding back the panels to display their tame water to guests. In such a room, one of the two central characters in The Handmaiden, an heiress (Kim Min-hee) confined to a mansion in 1930s Japan, is made to dress in elaborate traditional clothes and read aloud from her uncle’s vast pornography collection to his creepy friends. Women and their sexual desires, for the men in this film, are forces to be constrained, controlled, and collected. But like the water in those reflecting pools, both are fundamentally unpredictable and unruly, always trying to overflow and slip away from under their would-be masters.
The Handmaiden is adapted from Fingersmith, a brilliant, intricately plotted novel set in 19th-century England, initially narrated by Sue, a cockney thief who agrees, as part of a con, to go to work as the heiress’ maid. Her confederate, posing as a nobleman, plans to marry the heiress and then commit her to an asylum, pocketing her fortune and giving Sue a cut. Sue’s role is to insinuate herself into the confidence of the isolated Maud, urging her to elope with the bogus gentleman. Instead, she falls in love with Maud herself. Park doesn’t include all of Waters’ twists and surprises—his film is more glossy melodrama than Dickensian storytelling, but there’s still a good deal of double-crossing.
Fingersmith is about, among other things, the insurrectionary freedom to be found in invisibility. Waters’ title, Victorian slang for pickpocket, is also a punning reference to the dexterity of the lesbian hand, an erotic implement so much better at coaxing forth female pleasure than any tool the novel’s men have at their disposal. (Not that these guys care much about the real pleasure of real women, caught up as they are in the organized, artificial ecstasies of Maud’s uncle’s pornographic library.) Waters’ pickpockets take advantage of their status as social nonentities—working class, young, female—to move unseen though London’s streets, relieving their marks of the spoils of their rank. Sue, both servant and woman so doubly insignificant, steals Maud away from her uncle and the conman. What happens between them is unimaginable to the men who seek to use them, men who might fantasize about two women in bed together but who have no inkling of the rebellious contents of their hearts.
In Waters’ novel, the hand that works and caresses opposes the eye that mercilessly scrutinizes and the word that commands. Park gets this: Not only has he kept the hand reference in the title, but some of the crueler punishments in the film (notably less violent than his usual stuff) are meted out to fingers. On the other hand, Park is a card-carrying member of the party of the eye. Like many directors, he is infatuated with gazes, male and otherwise. His characters are forever peering through peepholes at forbidden truths and musing over reflections. The primal scene of his most famous movie, Oldboy (winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2003), an act of voyeurism that sets the preposterously convoluted plot in motion, features a young girl who, holding up a mirror to view herself engaged in an illicit act, spots the title character spying on her. Spurred to filmmaking by a seminal viewing of Vertigo (referenced visually in The Handmaiden), he remains in thrall to the style of Hitchcock, whose ravishing perviness was so flagrant that the revelation of his sadistic treatment of the actress Tippi Hedren and others was one of the biggest nonsurprises in the history of Hollywood scandals.
Like Vertigo, The Handmaiden is consumed by the meticulous construction of spectacle, from the weirdly hybrid Western–Japanese manor where it is set to its saturated colors and cascading soundtrack. It’s also, at times, as icky as the male lechers it purports to condemn. The composition of Park’s shots, mannered and symmetrical, flaunts its own obsessiveness, as does the elaborate costuming of Kim Min-hee, whose character is at one point made to illustrate a sexual position by posing with a life-size dummy. Her uncle and his buddies treat her like a doll, the film makes very clear—but so too does the film itself. At one point even Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the maid who becomes her lover, sees her mistress this way, thinking (in voiceover), “Truly ladies are the dolls of maids. These buttons are for my amusement.” Both actresses deliver vivid, tender performances; they generate all the movie’s fire, but they’re obliged to do it inside a chilly, ritualized framework, the aesthetic equivalent of a softcore mausoleum.
If The Handmaiden is meant to be an exercise in self-criticism, as it seems to want to be, it’s a highly imperfect one. One small example: In Fingersmith, the great struggle of Maud’s childhood concerns the gloves her uncle makes her wear when he forces her, even as a small girl, to work in his library. She resists, and he brutally breaks her spirit, to the degree that by the time Sue meets her, Maud wears gloves all the time. The gloves stand for her uncle’s misogyny (all those descriptions and illustrations of female flesh would be damaged by direct contact with the real thing) and for her imprisonment. Park has kept the gloves but lost the explanation for them, although he does have time for a luxuriant survey of the five drawers where she keeps her extensive collection. (Park has a mad penchant for extravagant closets, like the automated cube in which the puppetmaster villain of Oldboy dons his designer suits.) In The Handmaiden, the heiress’ gloves have become nothing more than another fetish item.
The film’s sex scenes are pure “Showtime After Hours,” disappointingly boilerplate given how doggedly Park sets up the love between these two women as a repudiation of mechanical male prurience. True, there’s a satisfying scene in which Sook-hee rips the uncle’s books from their shelves and dumps them into a reflecting pool; the two women stomp on the sodden smut like Italian peasants crushing grapes. But the vilification of men and their desires is not the same thing as a tribute to the eroticism of women. Finally, having escaped the bastards’ clutches, the maid and her mistress fall back into the tired visual clichés of pornographic lesbianism, their bodies offered up for the camera’s delectation in a carefully arranged exhibition that would fit right into Uncle’s collection. I wish the film had concluded with an earlier scene, one displaying the kind of freedom celebrated by Fingersmith: the two women running, laughing, across a green field toward an imagined, uncontainable sea.