Editor's note: Possible spoiler in the second to last paragraph.
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is one of the most anticipated films of the year, but the buzz around its provocative sexual content distracts from its greater virtues. The multi-perspective story structure has garnered comparisons to Rashomon (1950), when the film actually owes its narrative style, through its basis on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, to subversive women-centric literary traditions in gothic and sensation novels. In lieu of his films’ usual psychical violence, here Park emphasizes “emotional violence,” a theme The Handmaiden shares with George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944). Both films are born from the domestic gothic narrative of a man's attempt to wed and swindle a woman out of her inheritance by trapping her in an asylum, while exploiting a lower-class woman's resentment towards the heiress to help him pull it off. Gaslight sets this in 1885 London, with Gregory, his wife Paula, and Nancy the maid, while The Handmaiden resides in 1930s Korea, where Count Fujiwara enlists pickpocket Sook-hee to pose as a handmaiden to help him trick Lady Hideko into marrying him. Park has noted with pleasure how this film’s tonal shift has brought a stronger reception from female audiences, like the gothic novels and films before it.
The domestic gothic’s adaptation to film was ushered in with Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), a success that inspired a string of lucrative films drawing upon gothic tales. Some films threw in these tropes to cash in on a trend toward wartime’s profitable film audience of women, but in the case of Cukor’s Gaslight, it was an intentional, thoughtful interaction with the concerns of the female-addressed gothic. Of the 1940s Hollywood gothic melodrama cycle, this film is one of the most committed to its historical context, threaded abundantly with added references to gothic and melodramatic narratives (including "Bluebeard," passages from Charlotte Brontë's Villette, and the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, with its famed “she’s gone mad” scene).
Gaslight is sometimes dismissed as a commercialized version of Patrick Hamilton's play Gas Light, but such a claim overlooks the complexities innovated by Cukor. Viewers to this day neglect the context, history, and impact made by this film, and ironically fault it for the very things that enrich the story. The film and its source material have been so psychologically impactful that “gaslighting” has become a term to describe abuse by which people are tricked into questioning their sanity. In the story, the husband secretly dims the house’s gas lights from the attic, then tells his wife that she’s imagining it.
Detractors of the film often cite Bergman or Boyer being cast against type as a flaw. A strong woman or matinee idol being considered miscast betrays an apparently still relevant psychological oversight about who can become a victim of abuse and who can profit from it—this film answers "anyone" to both. In using this cast, Cukor saw the opportunity for something deeper to be explored regarding people's expectations of victims and abusers: “What if we do have a powerful woman?” Cukor said. “It will be twice as interesting to see whether she will be able to fight back, whether he will be able to really ruin her."
The film also has been criticized for transforming the story into a “star vehicle” for Bergman, and her performance disregarded as “hysterical,” an interesting choice of phrase for a film that questions the shaky construction of the term itself. The change of expected cast types and addition of Paula's history, character development, and backstory with Gregory, places the original play in a more firmly female gothic tradition that shifts the story’s focus to the wife.
As children, both Paula and Hideko witness their aunts’ brutalization at the hands of calculating men, and the girls are conditioned to be performers in their aunts’ doomed shadows. Paula’s damaging backstory also shows how Gregory maneuvers his way into her trust. Paula starts out rosy and flamboyant; she only begins to question herself after Gregory creates an elaborate trap of isolation, coercion, and false “evidence.” She interrogates her husband’s lies until he manages to both plan and improvise several forms of invalidation, and enlists the rest of the household for staged social gatherings to “confirm” to her his claims of her being ill, irrational, and eventually, crazy.
Gothic storytelling is marked by changing narrators, multiple perspectives, the instability of perception, and the reexamination of rationality and sanity as constructions rather than absolutes. Horror's classic “Is this real or am I going crazy?” conflict becomes profoundly lethal in the gothic as it reflects the historic blood shed by way of gendered subjectivities.
Long before Wide Sargasso Sea’s reexamination of Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason, Gaslight interrogates the “crazy wife” stereotype. The paranoid, hysterical woman that exists in history’s shadows is finally given her full honest depiction in Gaslight: All of her actions and emotional flare-ups are contextualized extensively. In one scene we’re given a direct example of how a woman’s hysterical public outburst can be a spectacle orchestrated for another’s gain.
Much of the madwoman’s terror takes place at home. Gaslight and The Handmaiden are not ornamentally pretty costume dramas that get lost under their opulence: The gothic's heightened domestic setting and heavy symbolism of everyday objects and costume drive the action. Paula being sent over the edge by minor things like a misplaced brooch has drawn derisive audience laughter, but it’s through seemingly small things like these that an abuser can emphasize the "irrationality" of the victim.
The Handmaiden brings fresh new complexities to the gothic film: The latent sapphism of gothic novels like Rebecca comes to the fore, and Park relocates the setting from Victorian Britain to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonialism. The film offers a particular innovation in the domestic gothic mise en scene, with a mansion designed as a combination of British and Japanese styles to reflect the story’s cultural tensions, its library especially dense with these idiosyncrasies and secrets (in Park's words, "another character"). Costume delineates the initial class anxiety between lady and maid, as the gleam of Hideko's wardrobe arouses Sook-hee's jealousy, and tactile objects—thimbles, Hideko's gloves, corsets that need to be tightened by a partner—emphasize sensuality. Through his careful attention to detail, thoughtful additions, and signature proclivities for voyeurism, peepholes, point-of-view shots, power-dynamic shifts, and plot twists, Park shows he’s found a stylistic kinship in the narrative contours and surprises of the Victorian sensation novel.
Appearances are deceiving. Gaslight’s detective, Cameron, is the only one at the sight of a public outburst from Paula to grow markedly suspicious of her situation rather than her mental stability. He's not fooled by the polished “gentleman” type embodied by Gregory or, later, Count Fujiwara. When Cameron sneaks into Paula’s house and reveals Gregory’s scheme to her, the scene’s key line speaks volumes: Paula cries, “At last, I can tell it to someone!” She sees her struggle as one of being listened to. Hideko finds a similar lightning bolt of validation and empowering support with Sook-hee when they shake loose what the Count has told them about each other.
Abusers and methods of abuse may not come in forms you expect, and in fact they gain momentum and power based on these false impressions. The terror of situations like Gaslight’s is in how they take advantage of an appearance to accumulate suspicion. These branches of abuse exist and feed on social structures, and thus those structures, and spectators, are complicit. Gaslight exalts Cameron for being the outside party who does not fall for Gregory's tricks, stressing the necessity of bystanders questioning what they're fed.
The film's climax is an extraordinarily poignant depiction of female vengeance that turns the husband’s specific abuses upside down. The madwoman holds a knife to her abuser, who's tied to a chair—now it is he who can taste the threat of being locked up. He’s forced to beg for Paula’s help, and to retract specific claims he’d previously disarmed her with:
Paula: How can a madwoman help her husband to escape?
Gregory: But you're not mad.
Paula: Yes, I am mad, as my mother was mad!
Gregory: No, Paula. That wasn't true! Help me.
Paula intentionally torments Gregory, letting him think she’ll set him free before he’s arrested, then pausing to insist she’s the incompetent madwoman he’s painted her as. Here, the madwoman in the attic has the last laugh, explicitly stating how she relishes watching him fall: “If I were not mad I could have helped you.… But because I am mad I hate you, because I am mad I have betrayed you, and because I am mad I am rejoicing in my heart without a shred of pity, without a shred of regret watching you go with glory in my heart.”
Park’s adaptation of Fingersmith is similarly invested in giving Hideko a victorious ending. Hideko’s vengeance consists of both the deaths of her abusers and her union with Sook-hee. Park, already known for his tales of women exacting revenge, juxtaposes a scene of the count dying with a tender shot of Sook-hee and Hideko together. The conman-heiress-maid triangle receives its most delicious inversion in The Handmaiden: It backfires beyond all reckoning when the man's manipulated pawns instead fall in love and unite against him.
The Handmaiden is a unique, complex new entry in gothic storytelling that recalls the dense subtext and filmic innovations of its predecessors like Gaslight, a film that seventy years later still confounds viewers with insights and fuel for modern-day vernacular on psychological abuse. Both of these films not only expose the obfuscation of women’s lives and legacies by men who weaponize the threat of the asylum against them, but also build toward climaxes in which the heroines carry out vengeance upon their abusers and reclaim their freedom.