The Handmaiden

Review by Abbey Bender @Abbey_Bender

Directed by

Park Chan-wook

Starring

Jin-woong Jo Jung-woo Ha Min-hee Kim

Anticipation.

An erotic thriller from a noted cinematic provocateur.

Enjoyment.

The layers of the satisfying con artist plot keep us on our toes, and the acts are well structured and, yes, punctuated by eroticism.

In Retrospect.

A genuinely fun blend of sumptuous visuals and a perverse sense of humour.

Park Chan-wook’s sumptuous erotic thriller is among his boldest works to date.

The Handmaiden is the kind of film where stylised, sumptuous details are paramount to its success. Park Chan-wook’s thriller, is loosely adapted from the 2002 novel ‘Fingersmith’ by Sarah Waters and set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea.

It concerns the increasingly provocative and twisting relationship between Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an heiress kept sequestered in a stately home by her pervy uncle, and Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a crafty pickpocket assuming the role of the Lady’s handmaiden. The film delivers all the pleasures associated with the con movie genre: the layers of double crosses (which develop into triple and maybe even quadruple crosses) keep us hooked and slightly distrusting of all the characters, especially the wily men.

Lady Hideko’s Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong) and Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), Sook-hee’s initial partner in crime, are revealed to be essentially impotent. Much has been made of the long, graphic sex scenes between the handmaiden and her mistress, but Park creates a compelling erotic atmosphere even outside of such outré moments. The film fetishises accessories: Lady Hideko has drawers filled with delicate silken gloves and her corset, lined with tiny buttons, is made to look as invitingly intricate as the narrative itself.

With its near two-and-a-half hour runtime and those lesbian sex sequences, the film could fairly be described as self-indulgent, but every new outrageous act, every shot that pans over silks or furniture or naked bodies, feels like a wry wink.

The sex scenes, with their full frontal nudity and the line “It’s so cute!” in reference to the female anatomy, are intentionally overripe and become integral to the structure in ways too devious to spoil. While it’s impossible to remove a lesbian sex scene directed by a man from the much-discussed spectre of the male gaze, Park earns favour with his audience by revealing the two women to be the craftiest characters in the film.

Some of the discussion around The Handmaiden has placed it within the grand 1980s-’90s tradition of the erotic thriller, and while many of those elements can be found (with the lesbian con artist theme, there are shades of the Wachowskis’ auspicious 1996 debut, Bound) they are complicated by the historical setting.

The film doesn’t quite have the noir influence of so many erotic thrillers before it, but it does make effective use of a confused national identity, blending Korean and Japanese language and visual elements with a moody blue-grey palette.

Many of the scenes in The Handmaiden go on just a bit longer than you might expect. While this tendency can occasionally become cumbersome it also becomes Park’s test of his audience. In an early scene, Sook-he bathes Lady Hideko and files her tooth when she begins to complain of an ache. The tooth-filing seems to take a long time, but it builds a perverse tension. We may not need this much time spent on amateur dentistry, but we do need to see how sexual power can manifest itself in so many weird ways.

In The Handmaiden, sex itself is a con, luring us into the narrative and then complicating it more than we might expect.

Published 11 Apr 2017

Tags: Park Chan-wook South Korean Cinema

Anticipation.

An erotic thriller from a noted cinematic provocateur.

Enjoyment.

The layers of the satisfying con artist plot keep us on our toes, and the acts are well structured and, yes, punctuated by eroticism.

In Retrospect.

A genuinely fun blend of sumptuous visuals and a perverse sense of humour.

Read More

Six of the best Park Chan-wook scenes

By Kambole Campbell

From Oldboy to Stoker, here are some of the South Korean director’s most memorable moments.

The vengeful woman and the changing face of Asian horror cinema

By Amandas Ong

Will this enduring trope become obsolete as we move towards a less gendered worldview?

Thirst

By Jonathan Crocker

It’s got problems, sure. But once again, Park delivers something dark, witty and original.

review

Is there still a place for eroticism in cinema?

By Justine Smith

Events like Le Festival du Film de Fesses are exploring stigmatising and transgression on the big screen.

What are you looking for?

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, LWLies has been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design