Review: The Handmaiden

Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, and Tae-ri Kim in The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden tells a familiar story to followers of writer Sarah Waters and her novel Fingersmith. That version of the story was made into a film called Fingersmith, set in Victorian England.

The Handmaiden is a South Korean adaptation of Sarah Waters novel directed by Park Chan-wook. It’s set in 1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, The Handmaiden follows parts one and two of the novel closely. The ending is changed somewhat.

If you are not familiar with Fingersmith, the story is a psychological thriller with erotic lesbian sex, intrigue, love, betrayal, perversion and abuse.

Nothing is what it seems in this film. Appearances are deceiving. Even the writer is unreliable as a storyteller. Beware, spoilers ahead.

Tae-ri Kim in The Handmaiden
Tae-ri Kim plays Sookee, the Handmaiden

A new girl named Sookee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her domineering Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo).

Actually, the handmaiden is a pickpocket recruited by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count (Jung-woo Ha) to help him seduce the Lady. He wants to elope with her, rob her of her fortune, and lock her up in a madhouse. Or so it seems in part 1 of the story.

Min-hee Kim in The Handmaiden
Min-hee Kim plays Hideko, the heiress

In part 2 of the film, we switch to the Lady Hideko’s (Min-hee Kim) point of view. She is in cahoots with the Count. They plan to marry, run off with her fortune, and lock up Sookee in a mad house by convincing everyone Sookee is the heiress. We see Hideko seduce Sookee while Sookee thought she was seducing Hideko into marrying the Count.

Hideko is forced by her cruel and tyrannical uncle to read p0rnographic literature of groups of men. He makes his living selling this material. Hideko is willing to do just about anything to escape from him, even marry the fake Count. Even betray Sookee.

There is a complication in the plans of all the characters.

Hideko and Sookee fall in love.

How their love affair works out, and how Sookee and Hideko end up together is changed in part 3 of the story. I won’t go into details about the changes because I’ve already revealed they do, in fact, end up together. That’s the important part of the story. There is still a marriage, a mad house, and a dangerous escape in the tale.

Another change – the sex scenes are much more explicit than in the BBC’s Fingersmith. Plus, there’s an overlong, unpleasant to watch scene when Hideko reads aloud for her uncle’s guests.

In one wonderful scene near the end, Sookee goes through the library – stacks and rows of valuable manuscripts – and tears them up. She dumps them on the floor. She immerses them in water. Hideko watched in amazement at first, but eventually joins Sookee in destroying her uncle’s collection of perversion.

The aesthetic of The Handmaiden is stunning. Beautiful. Every detail of the setting, costuming, direction, and photography is intended to convey beauty. A story that was very English in conception translated exquisitely into the new setting.

The characters all double-cross one another, so the plot may interest mystery lovers. But I think the main audience for this film is anyone interested in lesbian romances. Under all the duplicity is a simple love story about liberation and freedom. Nobody dies. Nobody goes crazy.

The film is a mix of Korean and Japanese with English subtitles. It’s streaming now on Amazon. The running time is over 2 hours, so be prepared for a long sit.

Watch the Trailer for The Handmaiden

The trailer doesn’t tell you much, but you get a feel for how the film looks.

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