The Arts Report: The Handmaiden at VIFF

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By Arts Reporter Andy Ta

In The Handmaiden, one of the highlight films this year at VIFF, director Park Chan-wook takes us to Korea under Japanese occupation in this adaptation of Fingersmith, by Welsh novelist Sarah Waters. The synopsis reads like a straightforward grifter plot. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a young pickpocket, is hired by a conman (Ha Jung-woo) posing as a Japanese count in order to help him seduce a wealthy Japanese heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and seize her inheritance. Things get complicated, however, as Sook-hee finds herself falling in love with Hideko and her loyalties in flux. The film that follows is one based around untangling the knots that the characters have tied themselves into and unravelling somewhat convoluted plot threads as the story is told and retold until we arrive at an ending based on personal liberation.

But no plot summary captures the real intricacies of the film: Hideko’s Japanophile uncle (a Korean collaborator with the imperial government) dedicated to all things Japan, or the moments of slapstick in the most incongruous of times, or (and it would be remiss not to mention this) the gloriously over-the-top sex scenes between Sook-hee and Hideko. For a film so grounded in the emotional experiences, wants, desires, and inner lives of its heroines, it is also a film that is at times unrepentantly grounded in male fantasy. This isn’t done unknowingly — in the context of the film this aligns Park with Hideko’s uncle as men who instrumentalize female bodies to titillate male audiences — but it is something that feels out of place at times, despite being visually excellent, especially when the some of the most breathtaking scenes are quiet moments of intimacy.

That being said, The Handmaiden is a great film and while it is not necessarily a subtle one, it has its subtleties. And how could it not? The setting of Korea under Japanese rule is ripe for discussions about race, imperialism, gender, and class and while not all of these subjects are tackled with equal fervor, there’s enough there that setting doesn’t feel like a gimmick. Take for instance the moment when the conman disguised as a Japanese count praises Sook-hee’s skull as being well-shaped for a Korean, echoing discourses of European phrenology as no one around him in the Japanese household is able to detect his own Korean-ness. There’s really a lot to love in The Handmaiden, and at the very least, it is impossible to deny its craft.

The Handmaiden has one final showing at the Rio Theatre on 14 October at 8:30 PM