The Handmaiden is like the purest film. It’s a violent, kinda screwed up, crime thriller but, underneath all that surface there it has this wonderful innocent heart. Maybe I’m saying that because it’s a costume drama about queer women, which I am all about, but equally they are women whose queerness does not express itself as pain or repression or manipulation, their relationship being something that empowers and strengthens them.
Now, I’m not gonna come out and say this is a move of total pure intention, the camera seems very interested on the sexy lesbians, which I’ll always be cynical about when produced by a straight dude. Especially when the camera lingers for so long. I’ll admit my own discomfort at any film which deliberately uses sex to arouse its audience; but that’s just a me thing, the societal fetishisation of queer women by straight men ain’t.
Back in my first year of university I lived in a pretty gay house. Every so often we’d have Lesbian Movie Night, five of us in a bed watching some low-budget joint, we tried to find ones written and directed by women, they were usually low-budget romantic dramas, there was usually a straight husband. Sometimes he was abusive, sometimes he was ineffectual, sometimes his toxic masculinity and entitlement was quietly stifling. Usually he’d be let down gently. The escape was always cheered; you also had to down your drink, we were students.
Coming out narratives I have a strange relationship to. They are an incredibly important part of the lives of so many queer people. We are defined by the way these moments possess us, yet the repetition of these narratives reinforces the concept that we are our own biggest obstacles. Of course straight people like those stories. It gets wearying. There is queer utopianism to be found, divorced from the cishet perspective, which defines our difference as our strength; Sarah Waters, author of Fingersmith, the novel the film is based on, is a lesbian woman, it comes as no surprise.
Unlike a lot of the films devoured on Lesbian Movie Night, The Handmaiden is good. The Handmaiden is reeeaaaal good. It’s about this conman, Count Fujiwara, who hatches a plot to marry a noblewoman, screw her out of her inheritance and leave her for dead, committed against her will in an asylum. To this end he hires Sook-hee, a petty thief, to take the position of the lady’s handmaiden, spying on her to give him the upper hand in his courtship. As the plot starts to unfold, Sook-hee starts to fall in love with Lady Hideko and, as Fujiwara moves to propose, she becomes increasingly unsure what to do.
Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri play the two leads, the women at the centre of this intrigue, trapped within this house and the secrets in its bones and basement. They’re amazing, navigating the roles they have to play, their unfolding relationship, delicately and deftly. I was most likely watching with a fool’s eye, as I so often do, it shocked me and surprised me. At times they’re tasked with falling into fantasy or, more challenging given the film’s overall tone, comedy. There’s proper great jokes, which these actors excel at making, especially the physical comedy.
They’re assisted by Park Chan-wook’s direction, his camera (with Director of Photography Chung Chung-hoon) as propulsive and inventive as ever as it glides and swings and teases the audience. He chose, in his adaptation of the screenplay, to relocate the story from 18th century England to Korea 1930s under Japanese rule. The estate is of hybrid design, Japanese and English, for the master much admires both cultures. Which is a good place to say that Ryu Seong-hie’s production design is as sex sex sexy as any of the lewd acts we see on the screen. Seen through a thief’s eye, all pretty and gilded.
The dialog too is a hybrid, moving between Japanese and the native Korean, a delicious play on these themes of power and class that run though the text, the nouveau riche Korean gentleman and his niece who tires of speaking a language none of her servants can understand. Reminded me of how, like, reading Dickens, characters will just stop and speak in French for a while. I never liked it, but mainly because I couldn’t speak French. It gotta be the way that our central relationship is also structured around the demolition of those class boundaries that seek to repress desire and life from our lives.
I ain’t really touched yet on the owner of this estate, Hideko’s uncle, with designs on marrying her himself. Kouzuki his name is, played by Cho Jin-woong, who relishes the opportunity to be this real disgusting bastard. An enjoyable character if a deeply unpleasant one. There’s a dark desire in how Park portrays his monsters, this is a filmmaker with a Vengence Trilogy after all. Even working with a lighter tone (I mean, comparatively) he is still able to find images that just push back into you.
I love this film because of the choice. What with all this depravity, surrounding it. The twists and turns of a murder plot. These characters’ troubled backstories. The thing it chooses to focus on is not the wounding, it’s the romance. It’s two women falling in love. It’s that that’s most of the film. Two women finding love and companionship and care, and it’s always going to be hard with stakes this high, they don’t always manage. What matters is it was a story that was told, and hey, told perfectly, more power to ya. It was a film that made me wish for Lesbian Movie Night again.
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