Review: Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden Is a Gorgeous Lesbian Thriller
4.5 out of 5 stars
Oldboy showed us director Park Chan-Wook knows how to put together a good revenge flick and Stoker displayed a strong Gothic sensibility. Now, his newest film The Handmaiden feels like a perfect marriage of the two. Based on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith (though it purposefully diverges in many ways), Park’s film, which you’ll see advertised as a “lesbian erotic thriller,” is a dense and engaging film that places two women in love at its center.
The movie is separated into parts, and the first introduces us to all our players through the perspective of our title character, a con-woman named Sookee posing as a handmaiden (played by newcomer Kim Tae-ri). She’s assigned to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) thanks to The Count (Ha Jung-woo), who’s trying to seduce the Lady for her wealth. The Count wants to steal Lady Hideko away from her sadistic uncle (Cho Jin-woong), but his sinister plan is to dump her in an mental asylum right after they elope. Naturally, there’s more going on under the surface and Park hides the full story behind a series of unreliable narrators.
I’m going to leave the synopsis at that, since this is a plot that unfolds with surprises at every turn. I promised to watch this movie again in theaters with a friend and I’m so excited to see their reactions. This is a movie I wish I could watch again for the first time. We see certain scenes play over several times, but they never feel repetitive or cheap as new context means you learn something each time. It has as many turns as the most melodramatic sensation novel so if you love stories like The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret, but are also starved for an explicitly romantic same-sex couple, this is the movie for you. I should note that the film deals with sexual trauma, abuse, and assault and some viewers may want to be aware of that going in.
Now, the part of the movie that every review has to grapple with: the sex scenes. While some reviews have criticized the very, very explicit sex portrayed in the movie I never felt repelled by the graphic scenes. The relationship between Lady Hideko and Sookee is one built up over many tense moments of Sookee growing more and more protective over Hideko, the small touches that last a bit too long, and other subtle, but telling expressions. I was rooting for these two so much that when they finally act on their feelings, it’s a beautiful (and yes, sexy) moment to see them be so affectionate. As we dive into the dark, dangerous, and perverse world of The Handmaiden, their relationship feels like the antidote and goodness that you want to prevail. There are some classic damsel-in-distress elements, but instead of a princely savior our heroes are these two women fighting against the men trying to manipulate and use them. In a sea of Bury Your Gays and gay sub-text stories, The Handmaiden shines. I don’t know if we really have a queer movie canon, but The Handmaiden definitely deserves a spot there.
Embedded in this love story and thriller that I hope non-Asian viewers also catch is the colonial backdrop. Language, while not a central conflict, plays a significant role in the narrative transported from Britain to Korea during Japanese occupation. Some of the characters, the very repulsive uncle and The Count in particular, feel like very heavy-handed comments on national identity. The Count is a Korean posing as a Japanese noble and the uncle traps Lady Hideko in a house that’s a jagged mix of Japanese and English architecture. They feel like comic book characters come to life at times (the uncle has a gross ink-stained tongue and Count has some props of his own), but feel very true to Park’s style. Fan of his will no doubt be sucked in by the distinct style, cinematography, and lush colors.
In conclusion: The Handmaiden is beautiful, disturbing, and almost three-hour-long film that comes to the U.S. October 21st. Take your girlfriend.
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