The Handmaiden Review

Posted: October 22, 2016 in 2016 London Film Festival, Drama, Foreign, Reviews
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The HandmaidenThe Handmaiden, the latest and most lascivious of offerings from Korean bad boy director/writer Chan-wook Park, gives whole new meaning to the phrase “guilty pleasure.” Many, if not most, will enjoy this wicked, naughty (oh, so naughty) tale of deceit, sexual politics, and betrayal, but be careful: too much enthusiasm for this luscious work may generate suspicion. Are you really so enamored of Park’s decision to transplant the story from the source material, the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, from Dickens’ London to 1930’s Korea? Are you a genuine fan of Asian film noir and relish a pitch black look at the human soul in its quest for money, power, and the upper hand? Or are you simply an educated pervert, engaging in blatant voyeurism, much like the gentlemen who listen to Lady Hideko’s readings of ribald tales at the invitation of her uncle?

For center stage in The Handmaiden is a lesbian relationship that is taken straight from male fantasy. Two beautiful Asian women pleasure one another in every manner a man can imagine in the course of the nearly two and a half hour run time. There is even a completely superfluous Ben Wa balls scene that is seemingly included because Park always wanted a Ben Wa balls scene in one of his movies and this represents his best chance. The sex in The Handmaiden is so beautiful, erotic, and specific to a Penthouse magazine view of lesbians that it threatens to overwhelm everything else in the production. Despite that, it may be possible to praise and recommend this film without offering a wink and a “Hubba, Hubba,” immediately after.

Park became known in the West for his 2003 film, Oldboy, one of the great mindfucks in movie history. If you have not seen it and the ending has not been spoiled for you, stop reading and go see it – immediately. The Handmaiden has a few curveballs of its own, and Park does enjoy revisiting the themes of power, captivity, and revenge, but we are on much more familiar territory here than in Oldboy. The story comes straight from the who’s-conning-who school of film noir. A sweet, illiterate peasant girl is recruited to serve as handmaiden to a young naive Japanese woman living with her uncle who intends to marry her and capture her wealth, before having her committed.


The sweet peasant girl, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) grew up in an orphanage with a rigorous vocational training program in criminality. She is recruited for the handmaiden position to assist the efforts of a fellow thief, Count Fujiwara, in obtaining the naive Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) and her fortune for himself.


Lady Hideko is not quite as naive and innocent as one might think. And how could she be, when she spends her evenings reading dirty stories and riding a wooden phallus (yeah, literally – that’s not a metaphor). She might have her own ideas about where her affections and her wealth will go.

So the game is afoot as Shakespeare and Sherlock would say. Park disdains a linear approach as this story unfolds. Instead, we see the action from multiple points of view, but the duplication is not repetition as each viewing adds splendid detail. You may see certain twists coming and still relish their arrival. The film is beautiful to look at, and not simply because of the stunning leading ladies. Art director Seong-hie Ryu won an award at Cannes for her work here. Consider it one more entirely valid reason to say how much you enjoyed the film.

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