I’ve long been a fan of Sarah Waters’ writing. Her works, often complex tales of romantic female relationships during the nineteenth century, whisk the reader through Victorian prisons, Whitstable oyster shops, Spiritualist parlours, a London baby farm, music halls, erotic libraries, and Socialist rallies.
As a queer Victorianist, for me, Waters’ novels have a natural attraction, but her skill in writing – producing luscious, rich, and thoroughly engrossing prose – makes reading her work an intense pleasure for her audience.
This pleasure – an aesthetic indulgence, a greedy delight in form and style – is a quality not lost in translation as The Handmaiden, director Park Chan-wook’s filmic adaptation of Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, recasts the narrative, originally set in Victorian England, during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s.
Sue Trinder, the novel’s eponymous Fingersmith, becomes Sookee in Chan-wook’s film, a young handmaiden who is hired by reclusive heiress Hideko.
The mansion in which Hideko lives and works is sprawling, ostentatiously beautiful. Within this house, an architectural amalgamation between Japanese and British building styles, Hideko is kept prisoner.
A beautiful bird – a sparrow, Sookee calls her in a lullaby – Hideko is trapped in a cage deceptively sumptuous and labyrinthine by her uncle, Kouzuki, for whom she must perform readings from his extensive erotic library.
Split into three parts, The Handmaiden pays homage to Waters’ original text with its complex narrative, deceiving the viewer along with the characters within the story.
Although we soon find out that Sookee is working for Fujiwara, a con art artist posing as a Japanese count, attempting to convince her mistress to marry this man and entrust him with her large fortune, the handmaiden’s relationship with her employer – and Hideko’s own secrets – further complicate the tale.
Without spoiling the nature of the many twists and turns in The Handmaiden (and, indeed, in Fingersmith, which everyone should read), there are several cinematic triumphs achieved in this film that must be lauded.
For example, it is a visually breathtaking film, with stunning cinematography. There are individual shots which leave the viewer scrambling to take in as much information as possible, as every item seems to be chosen with precision for visual or narrative purposes. This visual superfluity is one of the reasons why The Handmaiden is such a sumptuous pleasure to watch, but for a cinematic work that visualises itself with such exactness, it is also incredibly tactile.
The use of sound becomes an exercise in oral fixation – the enthused sucking of a purple lollipop, gasps and moans and cries easily carrying between rooms and through screens, the gentle grind of a metal thimble filing a broken tooth. Scent becomes a transmitter of memory and meaning, and touch – or the absence of touch – is emphasised by the lingering shots on Hideko and Sookee’s backs, the delicate unbuttoning of pearls pinning together gloves and dresses.
These moments of contact or restraint feature prominently in the scene in which the two women undress and dress each other after dinner, which can be seen here. The film’s doubling of these shots of unclothing and watching is one such example of The Handmaiden’s mirroring between the mistress and her servant – it is a visual reflection intended to echo the film’s dominant theme of doubling. We see Hideko catch Sookee’s gaze in a mirror, the two are repeatedly framed within shots as each other’s reflections, and the central conceit of the story [in which Sookee is placed in an asylum under Hideko’s name] is tangential on their interchangeability.
Hideko/Sookee as doppleganger is perhaps an apotheosis of form; the mirrored structure of the house, the doubled narrative, and the manifest emphasis on ‘discipline’ means that The Handmaiden draws on the hyperformalism of Asian aesthetics.
With deft sleight of hand, this theme is, however, inverted by the eventual destruction of Kouzuki’s pornographic collection, a plot development which echoes the film’s larger deconstruction of gendered visual culture.
It is tempting to suggest that The Handmaiden exploits its erotic potential (comparisons have been drawn with the ‘exploitative’ sex scenes within Blue is the Warmest Colour), but Chan-wook’s demonstration of their physical relationship suggests a deconstructive awareness.
The film’s intent to shatter romantic illusions of the ‘male gaze’, revealing it as a force for objectification, exploitation and the constraining of women, is made explicitly clear.
Sookee’s destruction of the taxidermied snake which guards the library – the so-called ‘marker of the bounds of knowledge’ – represents a purge of phallic symbolism.
The ‘perverted’ old bookkeeper is made chaste with the destruction of his library, the would-be rapist Fujiwara is symbolically castrated in Kouzuki’s subterranean ‘basement’. The men present at the erotic book readings, performed by Hideko, are denied any physical relief, kept at an enforced distance.
This message is also played out more subtly within visual storytelling – the colour blue, a rich azure, serves as a Chekov’s gun throughout the film, thoughtfully planted through poison bottles, transactional jewellry, and the cigarettes which close the story. The not-Sapphire earrings make a playful appearance in a print which serves as a coy intertextual nod to the infamous woodblock design, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. The threat represented by the erotica is reflected in how octupi serve as ominous, unspoken threats in The Handmaiden: a leviathan inhabits the bookkeeper’s underground chamber of horrors. It is telling, therefore, that this is one of the prints Sookee is seen to destroy in the purge of the library.
Consumptive male pleasure, patriarchal enjoyment derived from and dependent on the subjugation of women as aesthetic objects, is explicitly problematised in The Handmaiden. The peach, for example, which is used for Hideko’s painting class, is gratuitously bitten by Fujiwara as he gives Sookee the secret code – ‘almost ripe’ – to put their devious plan into motion. Fleshy and moist, the peach is an article which transitions from object of aesthetic pleasure into object of erotic consumption, devoured by the man aiming to benefit from the downfall of Hideko and Sookee. The film, therefore, seems to suggest that female sexuality can be explored and enjoyed if and when it is freed of male demands.
Sexual politics, uncanny doubling, and evocation of sense are only three themes in a cinematic production which deserves much critical attention and analysis. As with Waters’ texts, in which the rich narrative and use of form and style leads to a plethora of interpretations, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden will undoubtedly leave a diverse array of lasting impressions on its audience.