If You Liked “Oldboy,” Watch “The Handmaiden”
Con-artistry, class warfare, and plot twists abound in this instant classic
I have studied film and literature my entire life, film by proxy as I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, just over the hill from Hollywood, California where the movie industry was in the very air I breathed. My aunt worked for a producer at Columbia pictures for a while, and we saw first-run screenings for employees on the studio lot in a private screening room the day before a big premiere. I’ve never shed the influence of movies on my life, and when I decided to study literature and teaching, movies and movie analogies became my anchor to explore the role of story and narrative in all facets of life.
I was fortunate to go to graduate school in a small midwestern town that had a converted opera house as an arts theater, adjoining the best video store I’ve ever encountered. Their collection was as deep as the Grand Canyon, and I was never disappointed. They always had or could get a copy of any film I sought, even the most hard to find titles. For a while, I watched a lot of films in languages other than English. One magnificent film I encountered was the 2003 masterpiece Oldboy, by South Korean director Chan-wook Park. It has high Shakespearean revenge tragedy themes and a gripping reality that keeps the audience on the same edge of discovery as its protagonist. So, if you haven’t seen Oldboy, step away from this review and rent Oldboy immediately. I’ll wait.
Now that you’ve seen Oldboy and been blown away, take a look at Chan-wook Park’s film The Handmaiden (2016). I watched this on the heels of seeing Parasite and its historic Academy Award winning honors. Here is another film of class warfare, pitting Korean swindlers of modest means vs. a rich Japanese heiress, set in 1930s Korea during a time of Japanese occupation.
The historical backdrop certainly has much to do with the motivations of the characters, but it’s the intricate story telling — and the nature of telling stories — that is what this film is all about. The complexity of plot is reminiscent of Park’s Oldboy but the complexity is heightened in The Handmaiden.
In Oldboy, you are on a journey of discovery along with the main character to find out the meaning behind his being held captive for 15 years and then suddenly released to make his way toward the reasons for his captivity. While you aren’t sure what you might find, there is no inherent fear that evil-doers are following along and the character is safe on his path.
In The Handmaiden, however, the Korean plotters are constantly at risk of detection, which could carry a risk of death at their Japanese occupiers’ hands. So when the gentleman openly confesses to the Japanese heiress that he and her handmaiden are plotting to take her money, we as audience are confused as to why the plot is revealed. But Park is a master of the plot twist, and this story — or rather, story enfolded within a story, enveloped by another story, and on and on — isn’t about the superficial plot at all. The deeper levels of story-telling, subjugation, and passion involved in story-telling all find their full outlet in the hidden basement.
American movies rarely push the envelope of complex plots and intrigue the way Chan-wook Park does, and that’s a tribute to a master story-teller. The lushness of his sets is matched by the luxuriousness of the slow accretion of details and the intimate reveals.
The passion at the center of the story has nothing to do with the passionate intensity of the handmaiden and the heiress, though there is that, too. It’s reminiscent of Blue is the Warmest Color, but only on the surface. The handling of these scenes, again, sets The Handmaiden apart from most American fare — the sex isn’t gratuitous at all, though it’s quite involved and intricately detailed as is the plot of the entire movie.
The connection between the handmaiden and the heiress is the kernel of truth in the telling of the passion of the story, and we watch entranced as the plot is turned upside down, much as the men watch entranced as the heiress reads the stories her uncle has written.
Who is in charge of the story? Who gets to decide the end? The brutal Japanese task-masters, or their crafty Korean subjects? Or perhaps this story is about the finer sensibilities of women set against the brutality of masculinity?
I have purposely been opaque about the characters and details in The Handmaiden as to not give anything away. This is a journey into a time and place and into the very nature of story-telling that will enliven your spirit and awaken your senses. It’s less about good guys and bad guys and who to root for, the way that we align American sympathies in American cinema, than it is about who gets to tell the story. And who gets to finish it.
I hope you enjoy your journey in The Handmaiden. And I hope you can find your way out again.
Lee G. Hornbrook taught college English for 25 years in every time zone in the continental United States. He has lived on a sailboat and writes about film and movies, literature, baseball, and growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Between Medium articles, he is at work on a memoir. Find him on Twitter @awordpleaseblog and at his personal blog A Word, Please.