The Handmaiden is a lurid potboiler that manages to be an entertaining revenge thriller thanks to exquisite production design and a well-executed screenplay.
1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, a new girl (Kim Tae-ri) is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her domineering Uncle (Jo Jin-woong). But the maid has a secret. She is a pickpocket recruited by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count (Ha Jung-woo) to help him seduce the Lady to elope with him, rob her of her fortune, and lock her up in a madhouse. The plan seems to proceed according to plan until Sookee and Hideko discover some unexpected emotions.
Park Chan-wook of famed The Vengeance Trilogy has been criticized for using shock value to cover up his reductive storytelling.
This time around the director has been able to deliver a balance between cinematic artistry and his sadomasochistic twists.
The Handmaiden is an adaptation of Fingersmith but eventually veers away from the material to become the kind of movie that you would expect from Chan-wook: a lesbian love story cum revenge thriller with graphic sex and mutilation.
The first act stays close to the material until it changes direction in the second where reversals take you into sharp turns of events captured with beautiful compositions. In one scene, a new detail emerges in a conversation between the Count and Lady Hideko, their faces framed by well manicured branches.
The cast turns in great performances to create involving characters. The cheerful Sook-Hee has chemistry with the cold Lady Hideko as the two develop feelings for each other as the count Fujiwara and dirty old man Kouzuki bend the two according to their whims.
All of this takes place in a lavish setting inspired by its time. Production design creates a period accurate fully realized world. Set design combines ornate British interior with the minimalistic elegance of Japanese architecture. The same detailed treatment is given to the costumes, wherein each character wears clothes that befit their station in the household.
These details are captured by deft direction and shadowy lighting to create the mysterious atmosphere of the colonial estate. As the new maid is taken to her room that looks more like a closet, you can sense that the house is hiding some dark secrets that will eventually be revealed later on. The secrets, as what you would expect from the director, comes with sadistic implications.
The Handmaiden does live up to the hype that it has garnered – it’s dark, funny, and absorbing. The shock value is earned as the toned down violence fit the narrative. The sex scenes aren’t forced, though some of it is portrayed with a male gaze. The homoerotic tension end up being surprisingly romantic. The sexual liberation of its leads is justified and not designed to pander to a representation-hungry lesbian audience. It’s pulp-y plot is the stuff of a juicy gossip, but the kind you want to indulge in. It’s definitely better than Stoker, a pretty but hollow family mystery.
While The Handmaiden has more than just looks, it’s more concerned with its shenanigans. The relationship of the thin characters are underdeveloped. It’s not convincing to see a conniving old pervert hire a fellow con man with nary a suspicion and an emotionally crippled woman who was trained to be an indifferent medium besotted to a random nobody.
The movie is essentially a lurid potboiler that’s a cross between a Gothic tale and dime novel with stereotypical narrative elements – the protagonist with a checkered past who ends up in a rich mansion and manages to win over a stoic love interest who’s under the control of a comical villain.
Still, the movie is a progressive entertaining thriller that has a cathartic ending which compensates for its conventional ingredients.
Though left unexplored, it still takes a look at social class politics, gender dynamics, and sexploitation. It has a lesbian love story that is able to avoid tropes because it doesn’t portray a simplistic men are bad + women are good approach. All of the characters have unstable moral compasses – the women are trapped by their circumstances and left to take desperate measures, while the men are motivated by their selfishness to sustain their lifestyle. It’s refreshing to see how the movie acknowledges that male sexual fantasies are irrelevant to women’s desires – Kouzuki prefers porn over reality and the Count is a classic dickhead who fancies himself as a Casanova.
The Handmaiden is like a trashy yet leather bound novel with its layers of betrayals, morally ambiguous characters, and scandalous behavior that would’ve been inferior to the prized erotica of its time, but it’s still an amusing story about sexual liberation with a non-pandering feminist edge.
My Rating: 8/10