Director Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, couches a complex game of roleplay in the cultural context of 1930s Korea, during the time of the Japanese occupation. Sookee (Kim Tai-ri), a former pickpocket, is recruited by a Korean farmhand (Ha Jung-woo), who’s studied in Japan and taken on the false identity of a rich count, to help coerce Japanese heiress Lady Hideki (Kim Min-hee) into marrying him. Sookee’s tasked with taking a job at the heiress’s luxury mansion, earning her favor, and gently insinuating the count’s qualifications as a suitor.
The first of three chapters plays this swindle as straight as it sounds, with one ripple: Sookee falls for the heiress and starts to sabotage the count’s plan. Park, meanwhile, is already playing with not only insecurities of cultural identity, but also facets of feminine agency, positioning Sookee’s infatuation as an expression of maternal instinct—a callback to her early scenes in the unfulfilling role as temporary mother to babies reared by her thief family. In Lady Hideki, Sookee finds a seeming innocence only she can protect. This makes the two women’s eventual sex first scan as gross exploitation, a convenience of plot—male fantasy fulfillment rather than feminine liberation.
But this is less true in light of The Handmaiden’s belabored second chapter, which, for all its exhaustive retreading of a story that’s already been told once, albeit through conscious manipulation, does expose layers of convincing intent driving the actions of all involved. It’s here where another crucial component of the film is given dimension: the domineering Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). A foreboding surface threat throughout this film’s methodical first hour, Kouzuki is finally shown to be a pink eiga-peddling, Japan-fetishizing pervert whose intimations of control form a shorthand for Park’s rejection of puppet governance—an actualized sexual politic.
Kouzuki could also be taken for a kind of Park surrogate: His desperate attempts to wring orgiastic pleasure from the pain that’s inflicted on others, especially toward the end, could be read as the filmmaker’s sly self-critique of his own indulgences in hollow exploitation. This makes sense in a film that generally trades physical for emotional violence, and that recognizes the extent of the latter’s psychological repercussions. This acknowledgment also makes The Handmaiden modestly feminist, even if its elegant, Lust, Caution-worthy NC-17 sex never quite fully escapes the feeling of the very exploitation that it’s supposed to represent a rejection of.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.