For good reason, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden will be much discussed. The cinematography is luxurious. The characters intriguing, funny, and passionate. The sex scene is one many will love and many will hate. And the three-part narrative structure keeps you going, “Oooooohhhh.” You get to spend time in a lavish Korean mansion. You get to watch two thieves, posing as a maid and a Count, try and manipulate a rich pervert and his lonely niece. With all that said, It’s going to seem strange that I compare The Handmaiden to The Natural, Robert Redford’s beloved baseball movie.
When we think of The Natural, we generally think of Roy Hobbs and his crazy journey. He’s a young kid with the potential to be a phenom in the major leagues. Unfortunately, before he can even play, a game a crazy woman shoots him. He’s out of the game for years and years, until he finally gets another chance at the majors. The majority of the film is Roy’s time in the majors. The struggle of his natural gift versus those who would compromise him.
The larger topic at play in The Natural is sex-versus-performance. Let’s re-examine the plot synopsis.
Roy Hobbs is shot by a crazy woman, but that’s because he goes to her hotel room, hoping that she’ll sleep with him. This one choice, to pursue sex over any other option, results in the loss of 16-years of playing time. When Hobbs returns to the majors, at 36-years old, focused on only baseball, he hits home runs with such consistency it seems supernatural. That continues until he starts sleeping with Kim Basinger. Once that happens, Hobbs tanks.
Countering Basinger’s femme fatale is Glenn Close. The Natural goes so far to dress Basinger in black and Close in white. When Hobbs focuses on the love he feels for Close, pushing Basinger away, his ability returns. Plot mechanics aside, what we see is that sex itself isn’t a bad thing. Yes, sex can distract, it can create problems, it can bring us into situations that compromise our entire life. But sex is an act of creation, it’s how new life forms. As much as it can be about lust, sex can be about love. And The Natural posits that love for the game, love for self, love for someone else—these are the things that matter when it comes to performance.
The Handmaiden will be lauded and beloved for its micro-offerings—the characters, the moments of beauty and shock, the narrative twists and turns. But on the macro level The Handmaiden has a similar dynamic to The Natural, except with much larger of a topic.
The intrigue between Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), Hideko (Kim Min-hee), Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), and Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) looks at the forms and roles sex has in life. Sex as pleasure, sex as love, sex as trickery, sex as pain, sex as business, sex as seduction, sex as currency, sex as victory, sex as celebration, sex as destruction, sex as obsession. It’s perhaps the grandest examination of sex that’s ever happened in film, shown in the subtext of character action and reaction in a way only a master could deliver. Thanks Park.