THE HANDMAIDEN (18) 2016 South Korea 167mins. Korean with English subtitles. Adapted from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002). Directed by Chan-wook Park, starring Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha.
Books adapted into films have a mixed history, sometimes successful, sometimes disappointing, usually achieving a kind of visual imitation, a simplified clone of the original, unable to match a reader’s own imagination or compete with the nuance of the written word.
But in this case: wow! a film which elevates its source to a whole new level, many levels in fact.
A small aside: much of the enjoyment in writing reviews lies in finding some topical angle, some wider ramification, some way of bringing in the events of the time, drawing deeper implications. In this film we have now, at last, a chance to really let rip. The Handmaiden is that most rare of beasts, an articulation of something smack up to date, totally now, and vitally important. You think? Let me explain.
There has been much attention paid (in the press admittedly) to a recently published attempt to find some sense in the Brexit/Trump eruptions, The Road to Somewhere, by David Goodhart, one time journalist and founder of Prospect magazine. The simplistic takeaway is that these English speaking societies, Britain and the US, have become divided into the Somewheres and the Anywheres (suggestive of Gulliver’s Travels or a primer for infants), those who stay put and remain anchored in their communities and those who have cut their geographical (hence moral, spiritual and cultural) ties, the much maligned ‘elites’ who would happily sell the ‘somewheres’ down the river.
It doesn’t take much of a leap to read ‘anywheres’ as ‘immigrants’, however much commentators might tie themselves in knots trying not to draw the comparison.
It gets worse. One pedlar of opinion I read also drew attention to a reference Goodhart made to another book, also broadly dealing with these same issues, The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by an American academic, Jonathan Haidt. You need a book to explain this, you think? A desperate leap onto the bandwagon maybe?
The reference was this: “conservatives can hear five octaves of [political] music, but liberals just two”. Interesting, I thought, though gnomic. The commentator who thoughtfully provided the quote gave no further explanation. What were these mysterious octaves? What the words? What the music? Why were liberals so stupid? And so deaf?
Don’t get excited, dear reader, I’m not about to change your life. The octaves are these: let’s start with the two that everyone, supposedly, can hear: political chords to do with harm and suffering, and fairness and injustice; and the three that only the conservative ear is attuned to: loyalty to the in-group, authority and the sacred. I am quoting verbatim, if you can believe it.
Can this be true? Can someone have been paid to write this, and then to quote it, and then to quote it being quoted? (And now, here I am, quoting it again, which is maybe, in a way, the point.)
The Handmaiden, the film, takes Fingersmith, the book, updates it from the Nineteenth Century to the 1930s, transplants it from Victorian England to a Korea occupied and brutally repressed by Japan. The film revels in every possible reference, political, cultural, artistic, personal, sexual, a cauldron of ideas, languages, images, actions, behaviours; a book which was ‘somewhere’ becomes a film which is ‘anywhere’ or nowhere, or everywhere or, like a snake swallowing its tail, is back to being ‘somewhere’ again.
So, to draw that wider point, two more tone-deaf imbeciles in Goodhart and Haidt it would be hard to find. If you’re going to use an artistic metaphor (music) then maybe you are leaving yourself wide open to general ridicule when you forget to mention the most important chord of all - imagination, the chord which brings all the other chords into harmony, one ring to rule them all and all that, the tendency we all possess toward synthesising all our artistic influences, whether popular or esoteric.
Those infamous five chords are essentially internal, those which are ‘feeling’ based. The novel, with its two narrators, is essentially about their inner journeys, their feelings. The film, on the other hand, takes this same raw material and makes it external, about the integration of many artistic elements, many references.
To try to build a case, as Goodhart and Haidt try to do, that we are all discreet units, feeling, intuiting, within ourselves, empathy the ethernet cable that connects us to others, this is an utterly ridiculous concept.
Our minds aren’t computers, collections of neurons in the box of our skull, ready for an upgrade or maybe the trash heap. In fact the invention of computers, if it’s achieved anything useful at all, is the clear proof that we are not, in fact, computers, with clear boundaries, and input ports, but that our consciousness is larger than ourselves, we are interactive beings, beyond social, much more than the sum of our parts, we are the sum of everyone, whether in our immediate vicinity or further afield, or even beyond our own immediate, present time.
The Handmaiden is much more than a love story, though it’s that of course, much more than an adaptation, it’s a demonstration of the power of artistic expression, of the imagination, of the way there is no ‘somewhere’ or ‘anywhere’ just people, every single one containing ‘everywhere’ and every time, a synthesis of everything.