Review: The Handmaiden – Unlike any other Korean adaptation of a Victorian-era crime novel

THIS is a sex film.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve actually been waiting for this one for a while: Directed by Park Chan-Wook, who seems to have developed a reputation as South Korea’s premiere film export darling, The Handmaiden is an adaptation of the historical crime novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, about an orphan thief from London lying her way into a job as a rich woman’s servant to help a male friend seduce her for her father’s fortune, only to find herself falling in love with her new employer, and plotting with her to undo the sordid machinations of the patriarchal figures in their lives.

It’s a pretty good book, with a pretty good BBC adaptation starring the always great Sally Hawkins alongside Imelda Staunton and Charles Dance. If you’re into tasteful, gay period dramas, check those out. They’re great. But The Handmaiden is another beast altogether.

Park Chan-Wook expertly slices the story up to his own ends, relocating it from Victorian England to his native Korea in the lead-up to the Second World War, a time when Korea was under imperial Japanese occupation, which helps drive the central narrative of the film. Not only are the protagonist Sook-Hee and her conspirator trying to get rich, they specifically want to stick it to the Japanese and earn passage to the (potentially) more politically stable Japan. It’s a subtle touch that adds real weight to the proceedings.

This is pre-amble that a lesser film would spend time setting up. Instead, The Handmaiden delivers its context gently and piecemeal, dropping the audience in from the moment the plan is set in motion, allowing the sights and sounds of the piece to bring you up to where you need to be to know what is going on. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn to say that this may be the most beautifully shot film I’ve seen this last year, with the masterful camera-work not only capturing but enhancing the vibrant locations featured.

“But Dan,” you say, “You promised smut.”

I did. And you shall receive. Because The Handmaiden is about sex. Sook-hee’s rich mark, Hideko, is initially sold and presented as a virginal recluse with no experience of her own sexuality let alone how other people relate to it. She is, in fact, a performer of erotic prose for her uncle, a rich collector of Japanese pornography who trades his rare works with other aficionados, usually over greedy readings that he forces his niece to perform.

That’s all I can say without spoilers, but suffice to know that this forms the springboard with which the film justifies some of the most lavish and richly filmed sex scenes I can name. Indeed, the film flirts with the sexualisation of its characters from the get go and then plays a game of sexy one-up-manship with itself, delving into the very Japanese pornography it lampoons for some pretty vivid inspiration. This will no doubt put off a fair number of viewers, but in my opinion (the one you are reading) The Handmaiden joins the ranks of Blue is the Warmest Colour and Taxi Zum Klo as a film that earns its own smutty indulgences.

And so the question needs to be answered. Should you watch it?  Well, not with your mum you shouldn’t. But The Handmaiden is just too good to pass up. You can come for the sex scenes (just not in the cinema) but stay for pitch perfect plot, the ever-endearing performances, the outstanding visuals, the vibrant cultural context, the self-aware feminist subtext or just the gorram f&*%ing awesome soundtrack. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s romantic, it’s thoughtful and satisfying, and it’s Capital-E in Gilbert Gottfried’s voice erotic. If you can find a cinema still showing it, don’t skip it.

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