The Handmaiden follows a young woman, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), who is hired to serve as a handmaiden to Japanese Heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), while secretly scheming to trick her out of her fortune. The film is inspired from Sarah Waters’ novel ‘Fingersmith’ and is directed by legendary auteur, Park Chan-wook. The film garnered plenty of attention for its involvement of a lesbian couple’s sex scenes and despite the plot sounding like a historical heist film, it is more often described as an erotic psychological thriller.
We find out that Sook-Hee is actually a pickpocket hired by a conman who plans to introduce himself as Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to Lady Hideko and together with Sook-Hee, they will attempt to make the Lady fall in love and marry the Count. When he successfully has the rights to her fortune they will have her locked up in a mental institute. The reason why he hires Sook-Hee is to speed up the plan as Lady Hideko’s uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), also plans on marrying Hideko for her fortune and Sook-Hee will help him influence Hideko as her maid.
The film is told in three parts and the first part is narrated by Sook-Hee telling her story. The second shows Lady Hideko and her story while the third reveals the ending of all the parties involved. The further we delve into the film, the darker it gets and secrets are revealed slowly. Director Park, as usual, delivers his film through detailed and graphic visuals. His approach in Handmaiden is more gothic and although the subject matter is dark, Park doesn’t miss the occasion to use vibrant colours in the midst of the darkness. The romance that soon blooms between Lady Hideko and Sook-Hee also shines through the shadows. Their romance is given a very important role in the film and Park reveals all their intimacies to the audience. From their first encounter to their first kiss, we see it all. Although the film has been praised for it’s inclusion of a lesbian couple, the more risqué sex scenes have also been questioned, whether putting two naked women having sex on screen is just another form of male gaze. I disagree with this criticism. Yes, we witness the characters’ most intimate moments to the fullest, however instead of these women’s bodies being displayed for the audience’s pleasure, we are shown women who have lived their whole lives being controlled by men and now for the first time they escape from men together and share their pleasure. One of the reasons why we are so confused by this scene is because it’s so rare. We, as an audience are so used to seeing women’s bodies being used as props or to seek attention, so when we are given a provocative yet simple sex scene involving women indulging in their pleasure, we immediately associate it with the male gaze. Director Park takes head on the male gaze for a change. He is critical of it, just like the two female protagonists. He literally depicts the male gaze in the film, with Lady Hideko being forced by her uncle to entertain his male guests by having her read pornography to them. She dresses up and puts on makeup to sit in front of the male audience and their gaze to read graphic pornographic stories to their pleasure. Park is commentative of the performance women have to put for men, not only in film but also in real life. In an interview Park explained how sensitive and troubling shooting the sex scenes could be and to make it easier and more comfortable for the actresses, he had all the male crew leave the set, even going as far as using a remote hand to control the camera. A female boom operator was hired for the day and a room next to the set was prepared for the actresses with candles and snacks for them to rest in.
The characters are also as unconventional as the story. Hideko a calm well-mannered Lady is secretly making dangerous plans while Sook-Hee is her opposite, with her alertness and boldness, taking control easily. Count Fujiwara is a typical con-man; using every opportunity towards achieving his goal. However, the most eccentric character is Hideko’s uncle Kouzuki. He is a man of authority, always in control of his surroundings even the people around him, especially the women of the family. His appearance is equal to his characteristics; wearing black gloves and his mouth and tongue constantly stained by black ink. Each character is as dangerous and ruthless as the other in their attempt to achieve their goals. Spectacular performances by Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo and especially Cho Jin-woong in one of his best performances yet. With the experienced actors giving amazing performances, newcomer Kim Tae-ri does her best not to go unnoticed.
The cinematography is as bold as the film. Park once again teams up with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon whom he worked with on ‘Oldboy’ and ‘Lady Vengeance.’ We are continuously concentrated to the characters, following them closely. The colours constantly changing from greys to vibrant colours smoothly, emphasise each scene’s mood. The set and costume design is also worth mentioning. Every inch of the huge mansion is extremely detailed, with one part built in English architecture and the other Japanese. The costumes are also divided into Western and traditional Japanese clothes, with each one striking.
Park once again delivers an amazing story and an amazing film. Despite the controversies and criticism, he delivers a simple love story. The Handmaiden is out in UK cinemas.
(First published at NerdyPOC)