Movie Review: The Handmaiden

Movie Review: The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

by Sarah Waters (inspired by the novel “Fingersmith” by), Seo-kyeong Jeong (screenplay), & Chan-wook Park (screenplay)
Moho Film

The downside of living in a smallish city is that sometimes (usually) I have to spend months waiting for independent or foreign movies to come out online or on DVD before I can watch them. If, like me, you’ve been waiting for what seems like decades to see The Handmaiden — rejoice! It is finally available on iTunes and Amazon.

The Handmaiden is an erotic movie directed by Park Chan-wook, set in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930’s. It’s inspired by Fingersmith, a gothic novel by Sarah Waters ( A | BN | K | G | iB ) set in Victorian England. This is a tricky movie to review, because it involves not one con, but many, and to give anything away would be a shame. Suffice to say that it involves a lesbian romance aided by other women, sexual empowerment, and a lot of female rage.

In terms of content, you should be aware that while it’s not rated in the US, it contains a number of long and explicit sex scenes between women – all of which are consensual and joyful. NOT joyful elements include child abuse, attempted rape, violence, sexual exploitation, an octopus that really needs a bigger tank, and the torture of a guy who totally deserves it.

The main cast, looking pretty. Everyone dressed in Western clothing except for Sook-Hee, the maid

The movie has three parts to it – handy, since it’s a long movie, and at the end of each part you can go pee or get popcorn or whatever. Each part fills in the story. The first part is told from the viewpoint of Sook-Hee, a Korean thief from a family of con artists and thieves. She is hired by the mysterious “Count Fujiwara” to help him in a con. His plan is to entice an heiress named Hideko to marry him, after which he will have Hideko committed to an insane asylum and take her money (Sook-Hee will get a cut, of course). Sook-Hee’s job is to help the courtship along by encouraging Hideko to fall in love. However, Sook-Hee falls in love with Hideko herself, which makes her reluctant to go on with the plan. Part Two is told from Hideko’s point of view, and in Part Three Shit Goes Down.

Hideko is the niece and prisoner of a Korean man named Kouzuki. He collaborated with the Japanese and seeks to become Japanese himself in everything from his legal status to his language (he speaks Japanese exclusively until the end of the movie when he switches to Korean). Korean audiences would immediately see him as loathsome based on this collaboration, and the tension between classes, genders, and nationalities is endlessly complicated and fascinating.

The Handmaiden also features some amazing visuals. Kouzuki commissioned a house that mixes Edwardian English design and traditional Japanese design. The movie’s imagery pulls from Korean, Japanese, and 1930’s English elements in the scenery, the costumes, and the buildings. The subtitles are colored differently based on what language is being spoken. Pay attention to when people are speaking Japanese and when they are speaking Korean – it’s important.

Sook-Hee in a blue traditional top and a highwaisted white gathered skirt holding a parasol over Hideko who is dressed in a more English fashion with a high waisted buttoned skirt in a gold brocade and a white blouse with tight sleeves and a ruffled neckline open below her clavicle
Sook-Hee and Hideko

Given the huge double standard in film regarding how male-on-male sex is regarded and presented versus female-on-female sex, the sex scenes between Hideko and Sook-Hee could be viewed as either liberating and erotic or as another example of catering to the male gaze. My personal feeling was that these scenes were not exploitative. I saw their nudity and their exuberance as aspects not only of love but also of liberation. These women are constantly wearing clothing that conveys their status to the outside world and the nudity allows them, and the viewer, to let go of that. Hideko has not experienced an affectionate touch for years. Her sexuality in particular is utterly controlled by her uncle in ways I don’t want to spoil, and the parts of the movie that invoke the male gaze in the most devastating (and scathing) way take place when Hideko is fully clothed. It’s important in terms of characterization that Hideko and Sook-Hee get totally naked, and that they are playful and experimental in ways that have not been dictated to them by men. The scenes reminded me of the sex scenes in the Outlander episode “The Wedding,” in which every sexual act changes the dynamic between the characters, and the focus is on women’s sexual autonomy and pleasure.

As a bit of behind-the-scenes trivia, during the sex scenes, the director apparently worked hard to make the actresses feel comfortable. The actresses became close friends before filming started. They rehearsed and choreographed the scenes with all their clothes on so there would be no surprises during filming. Also, on the day of filming, only female staff were allowed on the closed set – the director remained in another room and all the male crew members had the day off.

I loved the Gothic 1930’s look of the film, I loved the twists and turns, and I loved the romance. However, more than anything else, I loved the recognition of the bonds between women – not just the romantic bond between Hideko and Sook-Hee, but also their relationships to their aunts and their missing mothers (both are orphans) and, in the case of Sook-Hee, her relationship to the rest of her family. I also loved how important details became. This is a movie in which tying a shoe represents affection, love, and the erosion of class barriers. I can’t wait to watch it again.

The Handmaiden is in limited theaters now and tickets (US) are available at Fandango.

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