The great feminist movie of Cannes? A 1930s-set Korean thriller from the director of ‘Oldboy’
Feminism on the big screen can come in many forms.
It does not often, however, take the shape of a twisty Korean thriller from the director of movies like “Oldboy.”
Yet that’s been one of the key narratives over the past few days of the Cannes Film Festival. Yes, Cannes, that place overspilling with feminist contradictions, where women directors knock away at the glass ceiling but the headlines are about Flatsgate; where complex female protagonists fill the screen but attention goes to Julia Roberts’ red-carpet feet.
In “The Handmaiden” — a thriller told “Rashomon” style by original “Oldboy” auteur and all-around gore maestro Park Chan-wook — the two lead female characters are the narrative focus, they’re the love story and, though there are times one or both seems powerless, they often gain leverage, with their minds far more than their bodies. (OK, there is plenty here involving their bodies too; this is a lesbian romance that doesn’t skimp on the sex scenes.)
“I’m not afraid of this being called a feminist film, and certainly I had that intention,” said Park, via an interpreter, as he sat on a rooftop deck here Sunday. Then, in his inimitably better-you-than-me-to-interpret-my-work manner, he added, “But once you start labeling movies you start focusing only on that. And I don’t want to focus just on that.”
Certainly there is a lot more to concentrate on in Park’s film, even as the primary takeaway, in an industry fraught with these issues, is of the feminist variety. Based on Sarah Waters’ early 2000s novel “Fingersmith,” “The Handmaiden” is equally thrilling to follow and look at — an exactingly composed work, dripping in period style and arty excess, that still demands a lean-forward attention to plot.
The movie is best appreciated with a minimum of prior knowledge. In short, it follows the young Korean orphan and thief Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) who, in the Japan-occupied Korea of the 1930s, is dispatched by a sharpie known as the Count (Ha Jung-woo) to become a handmaiden to the wealthy Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). The Count has a scheme to separate the heiress from her money by marrying her, and he and the thief agree to a beneficial split if things go according to plan.
But soon after Sook-hee’s arrival at the house — where the heiress is tightly overseen by a domineering uncle — they, well, don’t. For starters, Sook-hee and Hideko fall in love, complicating the former’s interest or ability to persuade Hideko marry the Count. And there is the matter of who’s really scheming to defraud whom. Without giving away too much, crosses and double-crosses abound in “The Handmaiden,” as the story shifts even more than the point of view. Suffice to say that three people all working for their own agenda means things are not what they seem, and what they are to other characters is not always what they seem to us.
If all this sounds vague, all the better--again, pre-screening ignorance can only heighten one’s enjoyment of the film. Constructed with the tightness of a Swiss Watch--or just with the intent to make every aspiring screenwriter shamed-faced in envy--”The Handmaiden” will reward a second viewing when it comes out later this year from Amazon Studios (first in theaters and then on the service, possibly in summer as a “Snowpiercer”-style genre counter-programmer). This is a movie that features a great reveal--and then manages a short time to make you view that reveal differently. And that’s all in the first half.
“When I chose the source material, I didn’t have detailed plans of what the story was going to be,” Park said. “There’s betrayal and there are thriller elements and there’s very much a bigger picture here. I was figuring all that out.”
Park took on the Waters book because of one scene he says “mesmerized” him. (It’s an early love scene, and it involves a lollipop, a tooth and a bathtub.)
There is, it should be noted, plenty of kinkiness taking the place of Park’s usual violence, even if both spring from the same Expressionist sensibility. The lack of violence may surprise those familiar with the director’s signature work (it includes vampire pic “Thirst,” “Oldboy” companion piece “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” and 2013 English-language debut and serial-killer tale “Stoker”).
But the director waved aside such absences.
“I didn’t set out to make a film that would have less violence,” Park, 52, said “It all comes
down to good source material and the tone and manner required to handle these elements.
“Besides,” he added. “I thought that physical violence isn’t that important for this film — it’s emotional violence that’s called for.”
It also bears noting that much of the sex between the two women is of the tender, emotionally supportive variety; it’s the men in the film, obsessed with various forms of S&M, who attempt to use sex as a means of domination.
Which brings us to the movie’s feminist currents. Essays can (and hopefully will) be written on such themes. Sook-hee and Hideko are, in this rigid society, seldom superficially in charge. But they are firmly in control over their emotions (something the men decidedly aren’t), and as the film progresses they become, for all the surrounding repression, uncannily adept at expressing them
Then they gradually move from taking charge of their emotions to controlling others’ fates. If one was looking for a movie that sets up a patriarchy only to provide a road map for knocking it down, Park has done it. That it somehow does all this in the context of such gleeful fun only heightens the feat.
There are those who will register a complaint about Sapphic sex scenes, asking if they’re gratutitous, a middle-aged male fantasy superfluous to the rest of the film. A friend after the screening lamented it was “male gaze-y” to feature the lesbian scenes in such sharp relief and questioned whether heterosexual sex would have garnered the same extended airtime or soft lenses.
Fair enough. But the scenes do establish the characters’ bond, and underscore how change to a status quo can come in the form of emotional connection as much as dry activism.
Park said compressing or excising these scenes would do the characters a disservice.
“To depict their love, it’s important to show the lovemaking,” Park said. “It would have been wrong not to show those scenes.” These moments in “Handmaiden,” along with so many others, show what’s right about global cinema.
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