‘The Handmaiden’ barely misses the mark due to jarring subplot

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 1/17/17 12:00am

After watching “Oldboy” and “The Handmaiden,” I think it’s fair to say that director Chan-wook Park, who directed both films, has a fascination with extremes. In “Oldboy,” it’s manifested through extreme violence, in “The Handmaiden,” it’s extreme sexual activity. Conceptually, there is nothing wrong with extremes in film, but they need to be justified or else films run the risk of coming off as gratuitous. So does “The Handmaiden” manage to justify its more intense moments? The answer: most of the time but perhaps not enough.

To me, the most surprising aspect of the film is how relatively normal the story initially seems. The premise of the movie is that a con man in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea hires pickpocket Sook-Hee to become a handmaiden for Lady Hideko. Hideko is extremely wealthy but lives under the iron fist of her ghoulish uncle. The con man, with Sook-Hee’s help, intends to elope with Hideko and steal her fortune. But Hideko and Sook-Hee begin to fall in love, complicating the original scheme.

That’s just “Part One.”

As soon as the words “Part Two” appear on screen, things start to get crazy, both for better and for worse. The best part of the film is the way it continuously rewrites its own narrative and thereby continuously recontextualizes its central themes of power, control, duty and lust. “Part Two” completely undermines the way we understand the events of “Part One,” just as “Part Three” completely undermines the way we understand “Part Two.” This description may sound vague, but the ingenuity in the structure of this screenplay is hard to talk about while trying to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say, each plot twist is brilliantly managed, resulting in a film which feels almost like a Rubik’s cube in the process of solving itself.

Of course none of these narrative conceits would work if we didn’t care about the characters, but thankfully most of them are engaging while retaining the film’s aura of mystery.

Personally, I found Kim Min-hee, who plays Hideko, to be a little uninteresting in her portrayal. I understand that the character is supposed to be restrained, but there is a fine line between restrained and bland. However, Kim Tae-ri as Sook-Hee makes up for anything Hideko lacks — she absolutely steals the spotlight in the film. She easily has the hardest job, constantly walking a tightrope playing both the victor and the victim, the player and the played. She handles this difficult task with both grace and humor. Perhaps the most delightful and unexpected surprise of this film is its intermittent humor.

There’s one aspect of the film which will undoubtedly make it both famous and infamous: the erotic scenes. On one hand, there are a couple of lengthy sex scenes between Hideko and Sook-Hee that rival the explicitness of “Blue is the Warmest Color.” These scenes have some justification, given that their aim is to convince the audience of the two characters’ passion for each other. That being said, this story could be interpreted as being about how women gain and use autonomy in a world dominated by men. One could further argue that this theme conflicts with the borderline exploitative nature of the sex scenes. Honestly, though, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the sexual content, which is distinctly more problematic.

An entire subplot in this film involves BDSM and sexual fetishes, and, sadly, it just does not fit. I am not, on principle, opposed to portraying these forms of sex in a movie. “Eyes Wide Shut,” which might be Stanley Kubrick’s best film, has some incredibly warped sex scenes. However, the nature of the scenes in “Eyes Wide Shut” is justified by the film’s plot. Not only does the plot of “The Handmaiden” fail to warrant these scenes, it also fails to weave these scenes into a tonally cohesive film. Park appears to embrace the time period piece and costume drama style of the story he’s telling, and he manages to imbue the film with an intrigue that never conflicts with the often lighter tone. When the aforementioned subplot begins to rear its head in “Part Two,” it feels incredibly jarring. Though the BDSM and sexual fetishes does not occupy a significant portion of the film’s running time, I found the subplot so distracting that it completely compromises the overall experience. It feels like Park was handed the script for this film and disliked its tameness, so he wrote disturbing fetish scenes and shoehorned them into the final draft to fit into his “extreme” ideal.

I wanted to like “The Handmaiden” more than I did. For the first 45 minutes or so, I loved it. At the end of the day, I’m glad I saw “The Handmaiden,” but I certainly don’t think I’d see it again.

Rating: 6/10