Teodosia Dobriyanova on Chan-wook Park’s ‘The Handmaiden’ / ‘Ah-ga-ssi’ / ‘아가씨’ (2016)
The first thing one notices about Park Chan-wook‘s literary adaptation, The Handmaiden / Ah-ga-ssi, is undoubtedly the camerawork. In an otherwise hypnotically immersive film, the beautifully panning camera moves through the scenes to reveal new spaces in a distractingly well-crafted way. More and more, this is a recognisable signature of the South Korean auteur. So are octopuses, it seems, but this is another topic.
The Handmaiden is a three-act story told from three different perspectives. It circulates around a young woman called Hideko (Min-hee Kim), who lives locked away in a three-story house. The first act of the film introduces Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and his main goal — to escape from what he calls grotesque South Korea and become a wealthy citizen of his desired Ithaca — Japan. He plans to achieve his goal by marrying Hideko — the orphan niece of Kozouki (Jin-woong Jo), a wealthy bookmaster who, it later turns out, forces his nieces to read pornographic stories to men who would pay to listen and even watch, as the readings are accompanied by visual performances to enhance male arousal during the readings. Fujiwara is among the audience when he decides to seduce Hideko. However, he soon realises that his plan is doomed to fail, since Hideko is completely indifferent to any male presence, so he approaches her in a different way. He offers Hideko marriage, promising that he will help her escape the monstrous Kozouki, but the woman has already planned to kill herself, finding death the only way to freedom. Count Fujiwara offers her a poison which will be her wedding gift and which, if found by her uncle, she will drink to avoid his tortures. Having nothing to lose, the young woman agrees and the two of them make a plan involving hiring a new handmaiden that they will later use to substitute Hideko’s identity. The new handmaiden Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) herself thinks that she is a part of another plan — stealing Hideko’s money and sending her to a mad house. However, something goes wrong in Fujiwara’s calculations – the two women fall in love and come up with their own plan to deceive the Count and run away together.
The film seems to constitute a series of binaries: purity, beauty, femininity and the process of falling in love contrasted with cruelty, vengeance, oppression and violence. By the end, the former prevails. The two women symbolically abolish the centuries-long patriarchal oppression by destroying the pornographic books in Kozouki’s library. Kozouki and Fujiwara, on the other hand, kill each other in a no less symbolic way.
Extremely female in its fabric and feminist-charged, The Handmaiden is the cinematic embodiment of novelist Siri Hustvedt’s claim that the sex of the artist does not determine the gender of their art. Indeed, a male auteur has created a radically feminist film, erotic whilst simultaneously subverting oppressive patriarchal structures. Do not apply Laura Mulvey’s theory of male spectatorship here.