Reading Between the Lines: Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden

In light of the current political climate, it comes as little surprise that some of the most cerebral films and shows this year are analyses of human nature. From the mainstream cult horror series The Purge to HBO’s Westworld, to flicks like Hacksaw Ridge and Suicide Squad, many pieces of popular media in 2016 pose a question to viewers: What would you do?

While obviously disparate in plot and style, many offerings this year present moral and ethical dilemmas which push human nature to its limits. Whether it’s supervillains working to save the world or a day where all crime is legal, audience members are forced to contemplate what extreme situations require of a person—either stepping up to a challenge or giving into depravity and violence. Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden investigates human nature through the lens of attraction and sexuaity. The film combines a timeless melodrama with a mystery—every character knows more than they’re letting on at first. Through its unique plot, sumptuous visuals, and complex story, The Handmaiden weaves a web of lust, deception, and the politics of attraction. It’s a unique but cohesive addition to the 2016 box office, and a genuinely excellent film.

Soap opera, at its core, is melodrama. It’s a complexly layered genre that always turns toward the worst possible situation. It involves elements of the absurd—the otherworldly. Everyone is lying to one another. The Handmaiden explores melodrama through a lens of human sexuality—the role attraction plays in achieving one’s goals, and whether it is possible to lie about how you truly feel forever.

We are introduced to the handmaiden through the eyes of Sook-hee, the titular character. Sook-hee is a Korean orphan whose mother was a famed pickpocket, and who was a pickpocket herself until she is convinced by conman Count Fujiwara to take on the role of handmaiden to a wealthy Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko, to try to steal her fortune before she marries her fetishist uncle. What makes this story such a quintessential melodrama is both the nature of the characters and the fact that none of them are what they initially seem—each is withholding secrets and information from one another. This secrecy is made even more interesting by the complex layers to each character—none are simply “the heiress,” “the handmaiden,” or “the conman.” Each have unique compulsions that drive them and desires that defy the expected.

The Handmaiden uses its melodramatic plot as a means of investigating human nature. Sook-hee enters into her maid-service with the sole intention of getting rich and getting out. Count Fujiwara seems to have no endgame beyond swindling Lady Hideko and leaving with his money. Lady Hideko seems to be a helpless victim to the games of Fujiwara and the abuse of her uncle.

However, each character’s plans are muddled by attraction. Sook-hee and Hideko, most notably, form a sexual relationship and fall in love, which throws a wrench in the initial plans of Fujiwara. He himself is challenged by trying to seduce Hideko, who desires to escape her uncle but loathes Fujiwara. Hideko is not a helpless pawn in any of this—she serves herself and is not as easily fooled as Sook-hee or Fujiwara initially expected. Sook-hee’s scheme relies on Hideko being an innocent, naive victim, while Fujiwara assumes Hideko is easily manipulated. She is neither, which is what makes the plot of The Handmaiden so fascinating.

Ultimately, the love between Sook-hee and Hideko is what brings human nature into play. How does genuine attraction to someone play a role in achieving one’s goals? What is more important: success, survival, or love? There are no easy answers to these questions, though The Handmaiden investigates them from every possible angle.

Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is traditional filmmaking at its finest. In three succinct parts, Chan-wook sets an elaborate stage and populates it with compelling characters who all interact in ways that challenge conventions of sexuality, honesty, and humanity. The visuals of the film are breathtaking to boot, each frame a composed work of art. Every line of dialogue, every prop, every background movement is intentional to form a complex story that forces viewers to wonder what the moral choice is in a situation that defies morality. Is the only proper action self-preservation? Or is the pursuit of true love and genuine attraction more important? The Handmaiden suggests that the former is a short-term solution for achieving the latter, and that ultimately what is true and good can triumph. It’s a period piece about overcoming opposition by any means necessary, and in that sense, it’s more timely than any contemporary drama.