With the new erotic psychological thriller The Handmaiden, director Park Chan-Wook proves that filmmakers can take book adaptations in any direction they choose. He takes Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith and moves the setting from Victorian England to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule — and it completely works.
To reveal too much of the ever-twisting plot would spoil the film, but it centers around three characters: Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a poor Korean pickpocket; Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a young Japanese heiress; and “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-Woo), a Korean con man who has disguised himself as an eligible Japanese bachelor. The film opens with Sook-hee taking a job as Lady Hideko’s handmaiden at the Count’s bidding; she intends to help the Count trick Hideko into marrying him so he can steal her fortune. But as soon as Sook-hee meets Hideko, everything changes.
Sook-hee and Hideko slowly fall in love, and from the first, their scenes together are full of sexual tension — sometimes sweet, sometimes funny, sometimes erotic. Sook-hee’s crush is immediately apparent, while Hideko’s takes longer to develop, or at least to show. But the sex scenes are often disappointingly male gaze-y, calling to mind Blue Is The Warmest Color and all the criticism it drew. Meaning, there is A LOT of scissoring and 69-ing. Other critics can explain the disappointment of this decision better than I can (Daniela Costa’s review, published at AfterEllen shortly before the site shut down, has a great takedown of the male gaze in the film), but while I loved Sook-hee and Hideko as characters and I loved their slow-building romance, the sex scenes felt jarring and out of place. Something else that felt out of place: a long, extended, gory scene that I had to watch through my fingers. Park Chan-Wook is known for the extreme violence he shows in films like Oldboy, and he couldn’t make a film without including at least one scene of it, apparently!
The film shifts perspective several times, showing us both Sook-hee and Hideko’s points of view. Each woman spends time narrating the film, which lets us see each character in two ways — how she sees herself, and how the other woman sees her. However, seeing the same scene from different points of view can get repetitive — especially in a 145-minute film. But the dual perspectives makes it very clear that the men around Sook-hee and Hideko see them only as pawns, completely underestimating their brains and bravery — and the women are able to exploit this easily. It’s very satisfying to see them scheme to trick the men who have power over them and come out ahead.
Despite its flaws, the Handmaiden is worth a watch for its complex female characters, its captivating plot, and the gorgeous costumes and scenery — and Sarah Waters fans will be appreciate seeing how true the filmmakers were able to stay true to Fingersmith while changing the setting completely.
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