Runtime: 145 Minutes
Director: Park Chan-wook
Writers: Park Chan-wook, Jeong Seo-kyeong, Sarah Waters (author of source novel “Fingersmith”)
Stars: Min-hee Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Cho
Warning: This film contains mild spoilers for “The Handmaiden”
By James Cain
Between 1910 and 1945, Korea was under the rule of Japan. The decades of ‘Japanisation‘ saw Korea become the second-most industrialised country in the region, the creation of possibly-fake Japanese-Korean regions (notably Mimana), the destruction of the Korean royal palace Gyeongbokgung and, during the final years of Japanese rule, tens of thousands of young Korean women being enslaved as ‘comfort women’ for Japanese soldiers (please note: this piece is written by a British man with an at best pedestrian knowledge of Japanese-rule Korea. Read up on it if you want a fascinating deep-dive!). It is in this world that Park Chan-wook and regular co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong brings us the story of handmaiden Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) and her lady, Hideko (Kim Min-hee).
Set in the 1930s, “The Handmaiden” is Park’s most lavish, most ambitious, and most erotic film to date. While the Korean titan’s films usually include at least a soupçon of sex, “The Handmaiden” is proper highbrow horn, combining theatrical intimacy and bawdy comedy for his greatest romance yet, one that you can root for without considering the implications of uncle-fucking (hello, “Stoker”…)
“Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee have spectacular chemistry together, their scenes becoming increasingly charged with charming, often-funny eroticism.”
Sook-Hee is a lowly, Korean slum-girl sent to the local Japanese bigwig Kouzuki’s manor to become the new handmaiden for Lady Hideko – a young, childlike woman who lives as a hostage under the iron grip of her wealthy uncle. Only Kouzuki isn’t actually Japanese: he’s a Japanophilic social-climber obsessed with erasing his Korean origins and becoming a gentleman of what he sees to be the far more refined, sophisticated nation.
And Sook-Hee isn’t actually a slum-girl: she’s the con artist daughter of the town’s most legendary thief (hanged shortly after Sook-Hee was born), and the criminal colleague of suave hustler ‘Count’ Fujiwara.
“It’s not all fun and games, of course. Without going into too much detail, “The Handmaiden” includes some horrendous depictions of misogyny and abuse.”
As Sook-Hee begins to work seemingly-guileless mark Hideko, the two women quickly begin to form a natural, sexual chemistry; one that’s massively antithetical to the criminal hijinks at play. Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee have spectacular chemistry together, their scenes becoming increasingly charged with charming, often-funny eroticism as we begin to question who is playing whom.
It’s a con-artist courtship that acts as a sleight of hand – so charmed are we by the burgeoning romance between these two women, we’re utterly oblivious to the twists and turns being elegantly set up by Park and Jeong. This is an erotic-lesbian-conman-comedy-thriller-period-piece that makes you wish they made more movies with that label.
It’s not all fun and games, of course. Without going into too much detail, “The Handmaiden” includes some horrendous depictions of misogyny and abuse. Here, tuxedo-clad, cigar-smoking men sweat over pornographic descriptions of vaginas and breasts, their interest in clitorises (clitori?) merely ornamental. It’s telling that the male creeps of this film, partaking in sexual book clubs led by unwilling women, are gatekeepers of knowledge.
The villain of “The Handmaiden” – Uncle Kouzuki – isn’t just an abusive creep: he also deems literature to be the realm of wealthy men. Women are included in his sordid book clubs only to read aloud and portray sex acts. Most of the male character’s interest in women extends only to pornography and ownership (which is admittedly handy when both female leads are lesbians and would rather stay away from the sexual advances of men).
Thankfully, the levity of “The Handmaiden” ensures that this is still a damn enjoyable watch, even with the near-three hour extended cut (both versions are great). The con artist hijinks are blackly-comedic, the getting-to-know you romance is charming, and the sex is both theatrical (apparently lesbians don’t actually scissor all that often, who knew…) and yet joyously, victoriously ecstatic.
While Park does consider himself to be a feminist (as all good men do), the involvement of Jeong as co-writer helps to dissuade any concerns that the sex scenes might be exploitative. They are, hopefully, to be seen as playful, exaggerated, and pro-LGBTQ+ lesbian romps. It’ll be a crime if these two actors don’t work again, too: Kim & Kim are utterly magic together, and you root for them all the way through.