The Handmaiden (Review)
aka 아가씨 aka Agassi
Written by Park Chan-wook & Chung Seo-kyung
Based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Directed by Park Chan-wook
If you aren’t a fan of Park Chan-wook by now, I’m not sure what it will take to convince you to get out and see The Handmaiden. But if you are one of the millions of his fans around the globe, you know that Park Chan-wook is a force of awesomeness in the movie community, and The Handmaiden continues that tradition of awesome movies from an awesome guy. Basically, run, don’t walk, to the theaters and check out a wonderful psychological thriller. There is a trio of amazing performances by Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, and newcomer Kim Tae-ri. Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith is moved to 1930s occupied Korea, where it still manages to work in a culture of repression and male dominance.
Kim Min-hee is heiress Lady Hideko. Hideko is isolated and lorded over by her cruel uncle, Kouzuki, who covets her money and title. Her mother died in childbirth, and her aunt was found hanging in a tree when she was a child. Hideko never leaves the family estate and her only contact with outsiders is a weekly reading of erotic literature to exclusive guests. If you are familiar with the concept of that literature, some of it is ridiculous, basically the dime store erotic trash novels peppered with flowery poetry and filled with imagery that at times stretches believability that the writers have even interacted with people who have sex. Hideko’s Uncle Kouzuki has designs on becoming a Japanese nobleman despite being neither of those things and Hideko’s money and title his avenue to obtain them. Kouzuki rejects his Korean heritage in an admiration for the occupying Japanese, but his true passion is rare books, specifically the aforementioned erotic literature.
Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-hee, a gifted pickpocket and thief embedded as a handmaiden whose job it is to help convince Hideko to fall for the fake Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo — Assassination). Fujiwara has a knack for making forgeries and is just the thing Hideko’s creepy uncle needs, as he can’t bear to part with any of his rare books, but is perfectly fine with selling off faked replicas of them. This gives Fujiwara the access he needs to scope out Lady Hideko and enact his plan of seduction and asset seizure, enabled by Sook-hee as Hideko’s new handmaiden. And then it is seduction time.
Of course, things don’t go quite to plan, as the seduction happens…between the ladies! Sook-hee begins to have second thoughts as she bonds with Hideko, and Hideko’s nervousness about love soon results in the women sharing a bed. As we see, Lady Hideko is not as simple and naive as she appears, and the level of plotting grows far beyond the initial schemes. Soon this lie snowball is going to go crashing down the mountainside flattening everything in its path. If you didn’t expect a bunch of twists and turns, I guess welcome to movies? We know things are going to collide and secrets are going to be revealed, so it is about the journey here. Park keeps thing strong with a slow burn build up of the scheme and the growing attraction between Hideko and Sook-hee.
As the film is divided in three parts, we later see things from Hideko’s side, and old scenes are cast in a new light while the hints that there was more going on are fleshed out. Finally, everything comes together for the final third, which manages to connect everything together. The women characters strive against the males, who become blinded by their separate agendas as the ladies struggle to go their own paths. They essentially become shackled by their desires while the women cast off their chains to claim their own destiny.
The lesbian scenes are obviously done without input from actual lesbians, but they still manage to retain an erotic flavor. But when I told my wife about the final scene, it blew her mind at how ridiculous it was (it is goofy enough I’ll let you discover it for yourself) which distracts from everything else about that scene, which is gorgeous as usual from a Korean film (at this point I’ve almost taken Korean cinema’s amazing cinematography for granted, the cinematography is always gorgeous!)
Aside from that, The Handmaiden is a strong film that will spawn a lot of amazing essays about it for years to come, which I look forward to reading. Don’t deny yourself the chance to see it on the big screen.
Rated 9/10 (CJ, ink tongue, portrait, other portrait, maid, crash test dummy, crash test not a dummy, punished, other punished)
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