List Progress: 11/12 (+3)
I don’t know where I got the impression that The Handmaiden was going to be a dry drama, but it was somehow in my head going in. Maybe my perspective is skewed by both what lesbian dramas tend to get made, and what foreign prestige films tend to filter through to the American market. But 2016’s The Handmaiden, directed by Korean director Park Chan-wook and adapted from/inspired by the English novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, is nothing approaching dry. This is an exciting, dramatic, twisty story of betrayals and cons and crime, and while it can tend towards the overwrought, it is one hell of a ride to take.
The Handmaiden translates Fingersmith from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Sook-hee, a lowerclass Korean woman, is hired to be the handmaiden for Hideko, a Japanese noblewoman and heiress raised by her vile uncle to be a pretty ornament and symbol of his praise of all things Japanese. But unbeknownst to Lady Hideko, Sook-hee is a thief who is working with a conman posing as a count to seduce and marry Hideko for her fortune. It is Sook-hee’s job to influence the beautiful but unhinged Hideko and pull her into the lure of the “count”, but she finds herself falling in love with Hideko herself and doubting how she can betray her. And that set-up is just the beginning of the drama about to happen.
The Handmaiden is aesthetically gorgeous, as carefully curated and controlled as Hideko herself, but there is a real warmth and humanity that still comes out through the characters and the romance. The sexual and seduction aspects of the romance do eventually warm into some genuine love, and the lead actresses (Kim Min-hee as Hideko and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee) are both lovely. Sook-hee especially manages to be playful and charming even as you know that she’s pulling a scheme.
If you are at all squeamish about sex, nudity or violence on stage, this is not the film for you; the sex in particular walks a delicate line between respectful of the characters and gratuitous. It’s by no means perfect, and I think the third act is weaker than the two that come before it, but the movie as a whole is a wild ride that I am still thinking about a few days later.
Would I Recommend It: Yes. But warnings for sex, sexual violence, and gore.