Park Chan-wook's Critique of Moral Judgment: The Handmaiden (2016).

Author:Choe, Steve
Position:Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency - Critical essay


Park Chan-wook's film. The Handmaiden ([phrase omitted], Agassi), tells a story of seduction, manipulation, and revenge set during the colonial period in Korea. Though this is the South Korean auteur's first, and so far only, period-set feature film, it nevertheless develops themes around ethics and moral judgment raised in his previous work, including the films that comprise the so-called "Vengeance Trilogy" (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance [2002], Oldboy [2003], and Lady Vengeance [2005]), Thirst (2009). and Stoker (2013). In this essay. I will discuss The Handmaiden and show how this film posits, through critique, that the state of abjection constitutes a necessary precondition for moral judgment. I am interested in the problem of subjectivization and the manner in which it acquires legitimacy to accuse another of moral deficiency (reminding the viewer, perhaps, of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [ 1920] with its series of accusations and framed narratives). The four main protagonists in The Handmaiden, play out a melodrama of politically and culturally oppressed subjects of the Japanese Imperial regime. But by the end of the film, two of these four, both women, outmaneuver and liberate themselves from the men who attempt to manipulate them for their own sexual and financial gain. The film does more than tell the story of emancipation, however, in its critique of how the colonial subject acquires the power and legitimacy to judge the other. As we shall see. this capacity to judge and. by co-extension, the capacity to accuse the other of moral wrong-doing emerges when the colonial subject realizes him or herself to be an exception to the force of law and yet must operate within it. This capacity is embodied in Park's film by the Collaborator.

Based on the 2002 novel by Sarah Waters called Fingersmith, which is set in Victorian England, the narrative of Park's Handmaiden relates the story of Sook-hee/Okja/Tamako (played by Kim Tae-ri). a young woman who comes from a family of thieves and con men. The name she assumes is contingent upon the context and the language being spoken for with the implementation of colonial rule, as we know, Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and speak only Japanese. Sook-hee is brought to the vast manor of Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong), a rich book dealer, to become the handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Kouzuki's niece and heiress. As she is led toward the room by Sasaki (Kim Hae-suk). the older housemaid of the vast residence. Sook- hee is told that Kouzuki's connections to the colonial government give him access to electricity for use inside most of the rooms. We soon come to discover that the young handmaiden is in cahoots with Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who has been hired to teach Hideko the art of painting. Fujiwara is, like Sook-hee, Korean. They have colluded to seduce Hideko and then have her committed to an asylum so they can steal her inheritance. The two women, however, unexpectedly fall in love, placing these plans in jeopardy. Sook-hee becomes jealous when Fujiwara touches Hideko during their painting lesson. In turn, Hideko becomes enraged when Sook-hee remarks that she would let her marry the Count. When it finally comes time to bring Hideko to the mental institution, it is Sook-hee that is committed, shockingly for the viewer. As she is carried away, the doctors call Sook-hee "Countess." She looks helplessly at Hideko and Fujiwara, but they step back. Their faces indicate that they must have colluded as well, At the end of Part One of The Handmaiden, the victimized one is not Hideko, as was expected by the viewer, but instead Sook-hee.

Already one hour into the theatrical version of the film, Part Two reiterates a number of key events portrayed in the previous section but will fill in narrative details from the perspective of Hideko. Part One was narrated with the voiceover of the Korean handmaiden and Part Two will feature the narration of the Japanese heiress. It begins with a scene depicting Hideko, as a little girl, training to articulate the names of body parts, including "mouth," "shoulder," and "penis." As a young woman, she reads Kouzuki's pornography collection aloud before a small group of gentlemen, all fetishists and prospective buyers of his books, and she at times grotesquely reenacts their content. It is also here, during these readings, when Hideko sees Fujiwara for the first time. In a private conversation between Kouzuki and Fujiwara, we hear that Sasaki was the former's first wife and that he left her in order to "become" Japanese. "Korea is ugly and Japan is beautiful," Kouzuki remarks. The conversation seems to bring them into alliance in that both men were born to Korean families and are now passing, more or less, as Japanese (though Kouzuki probably is not aware of Fujiwara's background). Later the Count meets Hideko at night, coming clean to her about his identity as the son of a Korean farmer. He says that he waited three years, studying bookmaking and the painting of forgeries, in hopes that they would meet. Speaking in Korean. Fujiwara also discloses that he intended to seduce and marry her so that he could steal her inheritance. Instead of going through this plan, he proposes another one where they marry, thus granting Hideko freedom from Kouzaki. and then split the money. She proposes an amendment to his plan and requests that she be brought a new handmaiden who she can have committed to the madhouse in her stead. Scenes from Part One are then recounted from Lady Hideko's perspective, revealing her disdain for the Count. We see how Hideko. at first, attempted to manipulate Sook-hee to make her fall in love with Count Fujiwara, but was stymied because of her unexpected love for Sook-hee. After becoming frustrated with her handmaiden. Hideko tries to hang herself but is saved by Sook-hee. The heiress conies clean and reveals her plans to manipulate the young girl. They make plans to run off together. Entering into Kouzuki's library, they destroy his pornography collection and later have Sook-hee committed to the mental institution.

Finally, in Part Three of the film. Hideko and Fujiwara discuss their plans for her to steal Sook-hee's identity. Meanwhile. Sook-hee escapes from the mental institution with the help of her friends and family. After Hideko poisons Fujiwara, she reunites with Sook-hee. He is brought to Kouzaki. who tortures him with his bookmaking tools for letting Hideko and Sook-hee free and for the destruction of his pornography. Narrating his wedding night to the dirty old man. he lights a cigarette laced with mercury, whose fumes will eventually kill them both. The film ends with the two women escaping to Shanghai on a boat.

Like Sarah Waters's novel. Park's him is structured in three clearly delineated parts. While The Handmaiden follows the basic plotline of Fingersmith in Part One, in Part Two the film begins to diverge from the story told in the novel. Waters reveals rather surprising details about the upbringing of her main female characters by the conclusion of her story, whereas Park adds another dimension to the escalating drama between deceivers and the deceived by showing that the latter can also manipulate and dissemble. Confusion arises as to who cheats and who is cheated, shifting the terms for how viewers discern whether utterances are truthful or misleading. "Handmaiden Tamako," writes Sight & Sound critic Jonathan Romney, "has been sent by the Japanese 'Count" Fujiwara to prepare his seduction of Hideko, whose fortune he intends to steal, but her work as an undercover agent is far outdone by Hideko herself, who reveals layer after layer of duplicity from the moment we discover that her neurotic ingenue persona is in fact an elaborate performance" (Romney 2017, 64). Hideko and Sook-hee are not simply naive participants carrying out stratagems conceived by controlling men, but exercise subterfuge and utilize techniques of seduction and deception to become active agents of their own emancipation. In this. The Handmaiden differs from most of Park's previous films in its depiction of careful scheming born from resentment resulting in the realization of individual freedom.

Elsewhere I have shown how Park's films work with the melodramatic mode by radicalizing its most salient features from within. (2) Writings by Peter Brooks, Thomas Elsaesser, and Linda Williams have proposed that we think of melodrama, not simply as a genre category or a type of "women's cinema," but as a dominant mode of (American) narrative storytelling. Taken over from French theater in the eighteenth-century, melodrama undergirds all contemporary popular cinema, encompassing a set of modern means by which spectators can feel and think with fictional characters in moving picture narrative. If traditional means of moralizing have lost their legitimacy in scientific modernity, melodrama restores a sense of coherence to the void left by this retreat of antiquated mores from everyday life through its presumption of an invisible "moral occult" that must be interpreted from empirical signs: costumes, mise-en-scene, lighting, music, mute gestures, physiognomy. The increasing preponderance of melodrama, then, gives further proof of waning legitimacy of the sacred, particularly in its social and political representations. "We might...

To continue reading