"The Handmaiden" by Park Chan-wook is a very feminist film (though it may not identify as such) that unearths a morbose, and sado-misogynistic world of literary pornography, as well as a culture of women subjugated to read these books out loud to gatherings of wealthy older men. It is a story of trickery, scamming, and conning. It is a story of power, dominance, and control. It is a story of ritual, customs and twisted desires. But, above all things, this movie is a beautiful and empowering love-story.
Much like Kurosawa's "Rashomon" Chan-Wook's film creates powerful suspense and tension through its multiple perspective story-telling; allowing the viewer to slowly piece together a narrative puzzle (as each character recounts their experience), revealing bits of information that unravel the truth about the chain of events that occur. Divided into 3 Parts (not to be confused with Acts), the different Points of Views serve as a witty story-telling trope that plays out beautifully and seamlessly in "The Handmaiden."
While it has the unapologetic perversion of Pasolini's "Salo:120 Days of Sodom" Chan-Wook has a sense of (dark) humor throughout his film. Telling a compelling, somewhat-stylized, and dark story but without taking itself too seriously; provoking moments of laughter despite the discomfort, the beauty, the perversion, the seduction. We are not only seduced by what is unveiled, but Chan-Wook also seduces us with lavish sets, luxurious costumes, and beautiful scenery, as well as meticulous directing, and gorgeous cinematography. The love-story and the tension that the Director is able to build between the two leading female characters is reminiscent of the forbidden love between Mrs Chan and Chow Mo-wan in Won Kar Wai's "In the Mood for Love;" generating tension and density in the air by controlling and denying us (the viewer) of our desires and expectations. By not allowing love to consummate when we most wish it to. And, although I have not actually seen "Fifty Shades of Grey" (and nor is it on my "Must Watch" Movie list), I imagine "The Handmaiden" also shares similar thematic elements with the E.L. James franchise.
Much like the 2013 Cannes favorite, Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue is the Warmest Color," Chan-Wook's film also shows graphic sexual encounters between two beautiful women (and runs about 3 hours long), but unlike Kechiche's film which indulges in woman-on-woman sex through a very accentuated self-centered, male-gaze, "The Handmaiden" on the contrary, is a very empowering story about two bad-ass women who--despite the sedimented patriarchal world they inhabit-- are able to break away, find love, express themselves sexually (in a very tasteful, romantic, at times humorous, and tender ways); and outsmart the ego-centric, sex-obsessed, wealth-obsessed men.
Chan-Wook is very smart in the way he shows us grossly perverse "acts" performed for the amusement of men, and under the control of men; and the same act later reclaimed by the leading females and turned into an act of pleasure for themselves, and for each other. A very beautiful, current, and empowering love-story told in a most creative and thrilling way.
"The Handmaiden" is now added to my list of feminist films directed by progressive male filmmakers. Sure, Chan-Wook is a male Director, and by default, it's impossible for the story not to have "a bit" of a male gaze, since it is a man literally standing behind the lens and looking through it; however the film is quite feminist. Like Rivettes' revolutionary "Julie and Celine go Boating" and Eric Rohmer's "La Collectionneuse" and "Claire's Knee" as well as Truffaut's "Jules et Jim" really progressive feminist films made by male filmmakers. Much like the aforementioned auteurs, Park Chan-Wook has managed to deal with sexuality, misogyny, and power from a very feminist perspective. Unapologetically and refreshingly empowering.