Movie Review - The Handmaiden

Sarah Waters, a Welsh writer, published the novel Fingersmith in 2002. BBC One adapted it into a three-part series in 2005. The book itself is divided into three parts. Director Chan-wook Park and co-writer Seo-Kyung Chung have taken this story set in Victoria era Britain, which is England in the late 1800's, and transplanted it to Korea under Japanese rule, which is some time between World War I and World War II. There are some cultural differences obviously but Park and Chung remain pretty faithful to the source material. The ending diverges from the book. In fact, part three has been altered quite a bit, and I'm not convinced the alterations are for the better.

Tae-ri Kim stars as Sook-hee, a pickpocket who is selected by a con-man to work as a maid for a heiress whom the con-man wants to marry so that he can lock her up in an asylum and steal her fortune. Sook-hee ends up falling in love with the heiress and questions if she should go along with the plan.

A bit of suspension of disbelief is required, but the premise has some logic holes. For starters, why did the con-man, known as Count Fujiwara, played by Jung-woo Ha, even need Sook-hee? Ostensibly, she's needed to be an advocate and whisper good things into the heiress' ear, as if that were crucial. Given the revelations that occur in part two and part three, that need is undermined and that purpose of having Sook-hee there at all evaporates, or at least the Count's reason for including her in his scheme seems pointless.

Min-hee Kim co-stars as Lady Hideko, the aforementioned heiress who becomes the object of desire for Sook-hee. In part two, her history is revealed and we get an idea of why she's this lonely and seemingly trapped woman who comes across as virginal and possibly illiterate, a perceived delicate flower. It's in part two that things are twisted and it's shown that maybe Hideko isn't so delicate but yet still unstable.

Waters' novel had the potential of being something like a E. M. Forster book and this movie the potential of a Merchant-Ivory production. Instead of Maurice (1987), which focused on a homosexual relationship between two men, this movie centers on the love between two women. As a lesbian romance, the film works superbly, at least in part one. There is a sexual awakening here that surpasses recent lesbian dramas like Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) and even Carol (2015).

A scene where Sook-hee watches Hideko take a bath is as powerful a scene as a similar scene in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), but not as creepy. It's so incredibly sensual. Perhaps, there is a hint of a male gaze that might be leering, but the sensuality remains off the charts. It's perhaps not as creepy because it culminates in a very intimate scene later, involving a lollipop that's fun, sexy and funny, which feels like a moment of empowerment and women taking control instead of being the objects of a horny director and his camera.

Unfortunately, all of that is undermined in part two and part three when the plot starts taking various twists and turns. Park does what is akin to Rashomon (1950) and tells the same story in part two that he did in part one all over again but from a different point-of-view. Part one is Sook-hee's point-of-view. Part two is Hideko's point-of-view. Switching p.o.v.'s allow us to see a crazy back-story for Hideko, but it also echoes a lot of what we see before but not in a way where we glean much more than what Min-hee Kim's great performance conveys.

It needlessly extends the running time about a good half-hour more than need be. It wants to have its back-and-forth, as well as its double-crosses. It leads to some great moments, including an extended and very graphic, lesbian sex scene, and a poignant and partially, hilarious near-suicide. However, its double-crosses only raise more questions than answers them, and raises questions in a detrimental way, contributing to its logic holes.

At the end of the day, the movie is about Hideko escaping the situation she's in. It's almost portrayed that if not for the schemes of the Count or even the love of Sook-hee, then nothing would have changed for Hideko and I'm not sure the case for that is properly made. She lives with her controlling and psychotic uncle, played by Jin-woong Jo. When she got older, I don't see why Hideko couldn't just leave with her money or call the police if the uncle tried to stop her.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains nudity, graphic sexuality, language and brief violence.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 24 mins.


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