The Handmaiden is an adaptation of Fingersmith but eventually veers away from the material to become the kind of movie that you would expect from Chan-wook. It’s a lesbian love story cum revenge thriller with graphic sex and mutilation.
The movie stays close to the material until it changes direction in the second act, where reversals take you into a sharp turn of events captured with beautiful compositions. In one scene, a new detail emerges in a conversation between the Count and Lady Hideko, their faces framed by well-manicured branches.
The cast turns in great performances to create involving characters. The cheerful Sook-Hee and the cold Lady Hideko develop feelings for each other as the count Fujiwara and dirty old man Kouzuki attempt to manipulate the two women.
All of this takes place in a lavish setting inspired by its time. Production design creates a period-accurate fully realized world. The set design combines ornate British interior with the minimalistic elegance of Japanese architecture. The same detailed treatment is given to the costumes, wherein each character wears clothes that befit their station in the household.
These details are captured by deft direction and lighting to create the mysterious atmosphere of the colonial estate. As the new maid is taken to her closet-sized room, you can sense that the house is hiding dark secrets that will eventually be revealed later on. The secrets, as what you would expect from the director, comes with sadistic implications.
The Handmaiden does live up to the hype that it has garnered – it’s dark, funny, and absorbing. The shock value is earned and the violence fit the narrative. The sex scenes aren’t forced, though some of it is portrayed with a male gaze. The homoerotic tension ends up being surprisingly romantic. The sexual liberation is developed well enough, despite its flaws.
While The Handmaiden has more than just looks, it’s more concerned with its shenanigans. The relationship between the thin characters is underdeveloped. The movie is essentially a lurid potboiler with stereotypical narrative elements – a shady protagonist who’s job is to infiltrate a rich household rescues a rich heiress from a comical villain.
Still, the movie is a progressive entertaining thriller that has a cathartic ending.
Though left unexplored, it still takes a look at social class politics, gender dynamics, and sexploitation. It has a lesbian love story that doesn’t involve a simplistic men are bad + women trope.
All of the characters have unstable moral compasses – the women are trapped by their circumstances and left to take desperate measures, while the men are motivated by their selfishness to sustain their lifestyle.
It’s refreshing to see how the movie acknowledges that male sexual fantasies are irrelevant to women’s desires – Kouzuki prefers porn over reality and the Count is a classic dickhead who fancies himself a Casanova. Lady Hideko comes into her own with neither of them.
The Handmaiden is like a trashy novel with its layers of betrayals, morally ambiguous characters, and scandalous behavior, but it’s still an amusing story about sexual liberation with a non-pandering feminist edge.