The Handmaiden: the ending that Mulholland Dr deserved

Reality and dreams in films

Somebody once told me that they do not like films that announce their plots as dream sequences in the end. This is apparent, given the sharp divide between reality and dreams in the human psyche; on this divide, humans have relied for centuries to justify objective truth from individual imagination and falsehood. However, why would this conscious need to distinguish substantial reality from abstract dreams act up when watching a film; the mind all the while being already aware of the film’s fictitious aspect?

To cite one reason, a film is responsible for establishing a world of its own. It works laboriously to immerse its viewers into it, and good films emerge victorious in a mere span of a few minutes. The revelation of a plot as a dream sequence is a nefarious act that renders the initial running time until the revelation, worthless. As also cited to me by the concerned critic, such an act is an excuse to make up for indecisive or unplanned plot-endings. Fair enough!

However, the despise that resulted from the watching of remarkable films like Donnie Darko and Jacob’s Ladder, was cooled down to an extent by Mulholland Dr. This David Lynch classic has been hinted as consisting majorly of a dream sequence, even by the filmmaker himself. However, Mulholland Dr acted as a balm of relief because of the possibility it presents -that of multiple interpretations. We, at CinemaMonogatari, painstakingly attempted to chalk out a different interpretation of Mulholland Dr, from the one already hinted at and talked about. Apart from being evidence of our own desperate expectations from a film, this act may also convey our motives behind the present article.

Why do we make The Handmaiden confront Mulholland Dr?

(From top to bottom) David Lynch's Mulholland Dr (2002) and Park Chan-wook's  The Handmaiden (2016)
(From top to bottom) David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr (2002) and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016)

We undoubtedly reveled in the masterful narration of Mulholland Dr, coming out surprised (and a bit baffled) as it ended. However, our hearts still whined for an equally remarkable film -one that would not offer us an insight into the deepest individual desires, disguised as plot. It was such desperation that characterized our search for “reality”.

It was only recently that we surprisingly found our dry throats quenched, and that too with cool water. In the mansion where sunlight rarely penetrated, we ended our search for “reality”. This mansion was the epicenter of the events in The Handmaiden, a film by Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. One may remember Park Chan-wook for his iconic work, Oldboy.

Releasing fifteen years later, The Handmaiden may not have been even remotely inspired by Mulholland Dr. Our attempt, here, is a resultant of the similarities between the two that we ourselves observed as viewers. These are trivial elements, although highly essential for our observation. We have observed them primarily as films in doing so. In addition, we rely on their respective impact only upon ourselves. However, we could care less for any inspirations that shaped these films. Neither we have inquired gravely into the absolute originality of their respective narratives.

Hence, what results here is from our first-hand encounter solely of the respective cinematic works themselves, and our own worthless human biases.

Connecting The Handmaiden with Mulholland Dr through differences

Do these two movies anyway connect? Apparently, one of the prime similarities is a love triangle, which is the subject of both. Coincidentally, both of them even have two lesbian lovers and a man.

However, that does not make The Handmaiden a Korean remake of Mulholland Dr, neither their plots are anywhere co-incidentally identical. There, however, are apparent similarities.

Mulholland Dr begins with a kidnapping escapee finding shelter in the residence of an actress’s aunt. The Handmaiden, on the other hand, has a girl being sent off to work for a rich lady. Both of these movies initially manage to conceal from viewers their respective actual motives. Only with successive revelations does one come to know the workings of a conspiracy underneath.

The encounter of Rita with Betty in Mulholland Dr is pretty much a chance encounter. It is unlike the one in The Handmaiden where Sook-He goes to work for Lady Hideko. However, in both, these initial encounters are a kickstart to the characters’ love affairs.

Of love affairs

In Mulholland Dr

Mulholland Dr progresses swiftly throughout its screen-time. We see Betty sympathizing with Rita and helping her out in remembering her identity. Their emotional turmoil results upon their encounter with the rotting corpse of the one they go seeking for. It is only later that night that, with a newfound attraction for each other, they make love. This attraction, although seemingly resulting from Betty’s caring attitude towards Rita, happens quite swiftly enough for anyone to even comprehend that they were anywhere nearly attracted to each other. Of course, they do spend their time together during a brief period since Rita’s arrival, which serves as an unsatisfactory testimony to their intimacy; the romance, however, only feels as a rebellious insertion.

This is true also for the second half of the movie -the one on which the reputation of Mulholland Dr stands. Although fascinatingly notorious, it fails to deliver any coherent connection between the two characters. The movie dominantly focuses on establishing itself as abstraction, but it does so quite desperately. The love affair, even being central to its plot (there is one, despite everything), goes in and out of focus; the only bombardment being their erotic intimacy in the first part as well as only a recollection of it in the second. These are only hintings aimed at a possibility of relationship between them.

In The Handmaiden

Now, this is where the need for comparison between the two movies is felt even stronger than ever. Park Chan-wook never retreats from the focal point of the developing chemistry between Sook-He and Lady Hideko. The Handmaiden is as cautious in developing its relationship as much as Mulholland Dr is swift in bringing its characters’ relationship to a hurried conclusion. There is gradual progress in the strengthening of bonds between Sook-He and Lady Hideko, unlike Rita and Betty whose present love affair is only an act of hinting towards a prior relationship between them.

(Top) A glimpse of the new-found attraction between Rita and Betty and (bottom) the emotional complexity of bonds between Sook-He and Lady Hideko
(Top) A glimpse of the new-found attraction between Rita and Betty and (bottom) the emotional complexity of bonds between Sook-He and Lady Hideko

Sook-He, as her handmaiden, got to be close to Lady Hideko. Although acting her part out as per Count Fujiwara’s schemes, Sook-He could not help falling herself for her mistress. What is important here is that Sook-He’s attraction develops gradually. Being close to Lady Hideko, Sook-He perceived of her as “so naive she wouldn’t know what a man wants even if he pulled on her nipples”. Her perception of Hideko’s naivety, shyness and tenderness makes her quite caring towards her mistress. Added to this was her sympathy towards Hideko’s state of entrapment by her uncle. All of this evokes her desire for Sook-He, one so strong and forbidden that she feels trapped at her job.

The erotic aspect of Sook-He’s emotions is enhanced and her intimacy to her mistress is developed through their everyday actions as mistress and handmaiden.

(Dis)similarities between Mulholland Dr and The Handmaiden

Already having mentioned our unhealthy bias towards plots that do not reveal themselves as dream sequences by the movies’ ends, we want to expound the (dis)similarities between these two movies more.

Of characters and conspiracies in Mulholland Dr and The Handmaiden

The underlying conspiracy in both involves a man; an active conspirator in The Handmaiden whereas only a passive instigator in Mulholland Dr. In both cases, however, the man is a hurdle preventing the lesbian lovers from consummation.

The man: as a passive instigator (top, in Mulholland Dr) and as an active perpetrator (bottom, in The Handmaiden)
The man: as a passive instigator (top, in Mulholland Dr) and as an active perpetrator (bottom, in The Handmaiden)

Characters’ connection to events…

Most characters apart from the protagonists, are only in a passing connection to the set of events in Mulholland Dr, perhaps excepting Adam Kesher and the diner demon. Undoubtedly, the acting performances are what tackle this lack of development through their profound delivery of emotions. “Character development”, per se, is negligible.

For instance, we get to know neither of their relationship’s origin nor of the hatred, Diane conceals for Camilla. Only at the party table do we hear Diane narrating her acting ambitions. We see her hiring a hitman against Camilla. However, having Camilla beat her in a role that promised recognition, or that being betrayed in love, are reasons that justify Diane’s emotions and plotting only abstractly. It also conveys quite little of the actual tragic condition Diane was living in. Although Naomi Watts does justice to her character, Diane herself floats in abstraction.

(Left) While some characters only have a passing relevance or sudden appearances in Mulholland Dr, (right) characters have active participation in determining the set of events in The Handmaiden
(Left) While some characters only have a passing relevance or sudden appearances in Mulholland Dr, (right) characters have active participation in determining the set of events in The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden is not only characteristic of its characters’ emotional delivery; it immerses itself completely into the wicked intentions of its characters as well as their feelings of affection. Moreover, Park Chan-wook’s signature tropes of Sadeian perversion heightened emotional intensity, and the bare, passionate evil and love -all add to the profound impact of The Handmaiden. Moreover, the drastic transformation of the characters by the end feels only as a result of their passage through hardships, of each their own.

Of division in narratives

In Mulholland Dr

Mulholland Dr witnesses the revelation of truth through the focus on the real-life conditions of Camilla(Rita) and Diane(Betty). Hence, what the viewers had watched until now was far too distant from the actuality of a relationship between these two characters. In actuality, Diane was a small-time actress suffering from the pangs of abandonment by her popular actress girlfriend, Camilla. There is also a possibility of the first half of the movie only being Diane’s infatuation. Which it is, is not quite clear and is for the viewers to interpret.

However, what we have known and has always been pointed out is that there are two parts of Mulholland Dr: one focusing on a dream sequence of (re)union (or infatuation), and another on the apparently actual reality of separation.

The division hence occurs through a shift from dream to reality. In other words, it is a shattering of all the knowledge until now. The knowledge accumulated through the first half, then, only serves as hints. For instance, if Diane was a successful actress (Betty) in her head, she was a failed dreamer in actuality. If Camilla as Rita had found her way to her in her imagination, then she was tragically distant from her in actuality.

Every characteristic trait of these two characters is too stark a polar opposition in comparison to their actuality. Perhaps it is only their subconsciousness reacting, which the renowned narrative division of Mulholland Dr shatters by shedding light upon truth.

In The Handmaiden

The 2016 release The Handmaiden also witnesses a similar division in narrative on part of the filmmaker. However, the only exception is that such division does not occur in the context of a dreamworld as opposed to actual reality. There are two divisions, one of which occurs with the arrival of Count Fujiwara. One gets to know his scheme to win over Lady Hideko, of which Sook-He is a part.

However, The Handmaiden does not exhaust its reservoir of unexpected revelations with this discovery. Another possibility of conspiracy is also referred to. This happens with Hideko’s thought of sending Sook-He to the madhouse upon seeing Sook-He’s gift from Fujiwara. Hence, another possibility of conspiracy always lingers through such act of referring. Despite this, the conspiracy itself does not lose its impact when it actually happens.

The act of shattering also results here. This is unlike Mulholland Dr whose announcement of reality and characters’ extreme contrasts form its renowned reservoir of bafflement. Instead, the revelation of truth only sheds to light the slow shaping of a “forbidden love” in 1930’s Korea.

Of non-linearity in narrative in Mulholland Dr and The Handmaiden

The plot of The Handmaiden is, in a way, an utter reversal of that of its predecessor. Mulholland Dr consists of separated former lovers; The Handmaiden consists of two individuals, intended-for-separate-motives, falling into love.

The ambitions of the non-linear narratives of both, then, have different aims. The non-linearity in Mulholland Dr moves to and fro between dream/imagination and actuality. It introduces multiple characters who only appear for brief moments. There are also multiple incidents. These incidents, undoubtedly, are connected to each other. However, none of them provides a gradual development of the varying motives, psychological frameworks, conspiracies etc present in the movie. Everything seemingly flows in suspension, excepting the only fact that the excessive number of incidents have some connection.

The credibility of The Handmaiden lies in grounding itself in a linear actuality, yet unraveling masterfully in a non-linear manner. The non-linearity occurs as time lapses, rather than by bombardment of the waking life of a hallucinating individual. It neither shifts away its focus from its concerned characters, even if few. This makes The Handmaiden‘s non-linearity more purposeful.

It may be true that David Lynch aimed for artistic abstraction; we are not meant to fish meanings out of Mulholland Dr. However, so abstract is Mulholland Dr that its very purpose seems clouded in abstraction.


It could perhaps have been possible to forget the overwhelming abstraction of Mulholland Dr. However, what prevents it from completion is the movie’s ending.

The ending

The ending of Mulholland Dr is an abrupt one. It is not that we wish it to have the happy ending of The Handmaiden. However, we cannot help but bring up the constant incomprehensibility characteristic even of its ending. While Mulholland Dr dedicates itself to causing bafflement through incomprehensibility, The Handmaiden does baffle with an apparent shattering of expectations. True, none of the movies are what we expect them to be from the start. However, the latter’s cinematic art is capable of sustaining its illusions, without falling into incomprehensibility. Moreover, The Handmaiden accomplishes its wide range of emotional complexity and illusory motives by also being two minutes lesser in duration!

(Top) The ending of Mulholland Dr as an abstraction and (bottom) the ending of The Handmaiden as the relieving consummation
(Top) The ending of Mulholland Dr as an abstraction and (bottom) the ending of The Handmaiden as the relieving consummation

Why hail the plot?

It is true that Mulholland Dr is significant of Lynch’s masterful narration and we keep revisiting it; but truth be said, we mostly do it only to understand the movie better. Perhaps meant for incomprehensibility, its task may solely be to appeal to the senses. However, even for that, despite every possibility of getting lynched by David Lynch’s admirers, I must admit that the acting performances hold credibility. By the end of Mulholland Dr, we are only left with a plethora of characters, abstract notions, and character generalizations. The purposelessness of the very presence of a plot enhances. If the movie is complete in itself, then such is only due to connected events appearing in abstraction. If it is not and is a dream, then even the last drop of purpose for a focused plot has now drained out. In fact, with the ending, it actually seems such.

That said, we will adhere to our bias towards The Handmaiden. True, Lynch won an award for “Best Director” for Mulholland Dr and there is no reason he shouldn’t. However, the blindness of Academy Awards is self-reflective: thanks to which, the overlooking of movies such as The Handmaiden only speaks of lack in taste!

Leave a Reply