Friday, December 4, 2020

Getting a Handle on “The Handmaiden”

When Parasite started gaining international attention, I was unfamiliar with the work of today’s much-acclaimed South Korean filmmakers. But the bravado style and moral complexity of that twisty thriller (which went on to become the first foreign-language film ever to win Hollywood’s Best Picture Oscar) enthralled me, and I determined to find out more. Decades ago, when I spent a week as a houseguest in Seoul, I was taken to a movie. It was, as I recall, a cheap imitation of an American film. There was a Coca-Cola-style beverage being hustled in the lobby (along with a bad attempt at chocolate candy): the sale of these unappealing items was helped along by an abrupt intermission midway through the flick.

 Today, though, many Korean films are exquisitely calibrated works of art. (I’m sure the snacks have improved too.) That’s why I set aside time to watch Chan-Wook Park’s most recent film, The Handmaiden. It’s a period piece, set in the 1930s, when Korea was dominated by a Japanese ruling class, and downtrodden Koreans were expected to have a full command of the Japanese language and customs. That’s why prints for American audiences are subtitled in both languages (yellow fonts for Japanese; white for Korean), and it’s fascinating to see characters switch, sometimes in mid-conversation, from one language to another.

 If the language use is fluid in the film, so is identity in general. Many of the characters are trying to pass themselves off as people (and even  nationalities) they are not, like the ersatz Japanese count—so aristocratic in his manners—who turns out to be the son of a Korean farmer. Moreover, few characters’ motives are entirely clear.  This is brought home to us when, at different points in the film, the same key episodes play out, but with slight variations that change their meaning entirely, depending on whose perspective we are in at the time. In every case, facts blur, deceptions abound, and we in the audience find ourselves rethinking everything we thought we once knew.

 As a Roger Corman peon, there was a time I was knee-deep in erotic thrillers, and The Handmaiden is about as erotic as it gets. Bodies are treated frankly, but also with full respect for their beauty. (There’s a  sharp contrast here to the bizarre pornographic illustrations—drawn from classic Japanese erotica—that one of the main characters obsessively collects.) But if nudity is one of this film’s staples, so is the respect paid to clothing and adornment. Lady Hideko, the elegant Japanese transplant played by Min-hee Kim, shifts between stylish western flounces and formal kimono, contrasting dramatically with “handmaiden” Sook-Hee’s Korean-style apparel. (I’ve always speculated that the contrast between the tightly-bound Japanese obi and the loosely billowing Korean dress epitomizes the difference between the two cultures.) When garments are switched or removed, it’s often to signal that a radical shift in identity is about to follow. When we see Sook-Hee, now in Japan, suddenly donning sumptuous-looking Japanese brocade, we know something unsettling is about to occur.

 One of the pleasures of Parasite was seeing the creative use being made of a hyper-modern Seoul luxury home. The Handmaiden, too, takes vivid advantage of its architectural setting. Much of the film is set in the Korean countryside, where the lascivious Uncle Kouzouki has used his  considerable wealth to create an amalgam of a sumptuous Victorian palace and an austere Japanese villa. This hybrid structure in some ways reflects the contradictions of this film, which is both ugly and beautiful, both degrading and uplifting, both minimalist and baroque. But always, always fascinating.



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