The Handmaiden (2016): Simmering Sex and Dirty Books (Review)

Publicity still from The Handmaiden

Directed by critic favorite Chan-wook Park, The Handmaiden (inspired by Sarah Waters‘ depiction of Victorian England in her book “Fingersmith”) is, for all intents and purposes, a “bodice ripper.” In other words there is a good amount of simmering sex and a lot of dirty books.

Updated to fit the time frame of Japan’s occupation of Korea, it features a beautiful pair of women who share an unhappy past. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) has a lot of money and is orphaned. She lives with her uncle who has a large library of pornographic books that he forces her to read to an appreciative audience. 

Jun-su (Tae-ri Kim), a young pickpocket – whose male mentor is a thief of the highest order – becomes Hideko’s handmaiden. The mentor becomes Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and he “tricks” Hideko into marrying him.  

But all is not as it seems in this film. The uncle (Jin-woong Jowho forces Hideko to read porn to his paying guests may be the only character who flies his true flag’s colours. His only real artifice, if it can be called that, is to affect Japanese ways.

It is this affectation that allows the “Count” access to the man and Fujiwara’s pretending to be Japanese royalty is both his plan and downfall. It could be said that Fujiwara’s intentions are also pretty clear, he is like the uncle in this respect…

Hideko pretends to be an innocent in the ways of love and sex and Jun-su, of course, pretends to be a handmaid versus a thief. The latter’s instructions are to aid Count Fujiwara in his quest to bed and wed Lady Hideko.

Through the course of the film, which runs in three parts like the source novel, we are treated to the two women falling in love and some “soft porn” depictions of sex. We also learn that Hideko is not the wallflower that Jun-su thinks she is and that the reader of books is desperate to escape her uncle’s iron rule.

The film looks spectacular, even without all the lovingly lit and framed female nudity, and the set pieces, along with the costumes, help to bring the film’s setting to life.  The story, broken into three parts, reveals what is going on behind the scenes, although the final act really wraps things up.

Behind all the subterfuge and the nefarious doings of various characters, the film really is a romance. It chronicles, at the start, the two women and their gradual awareness of each other. What starts as an infatuation graduates to full sexual congress and they bond completely before the “Count” ever arrives.

We learn of Jun-su’s (whose name is changed to Sook-Hee when she starts work at the house) background and what makes the young woman tick.  Leaving out the lovemaking (there is not a huge amount anyway) the romance between the two women takes second place to the mystery of who is really doing what.

In many ways this feels like a combination of Stoker with a touch of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” For those who never heard of the book, it was a sensation “back in the day” as a story regaling the reader of a “lady” who fancied a bit of “rough.” A lot. In this particular tale, the “rough” is a young pickpocket and not a stablehand. (This really is down to the author of “Fingersmith” however and not Park Chan-wook.)

The film is a long one, clocking in at two hours and 24 minutes.  It does not, however, feel long. The story is interesting enough that it keeps the attention transfixed on the events in each of the three parts, or acts, as  presented.

The Handmaiden is a full 5 star treat and it is available on Amazon Prime, for free or can be rented/streamed if one is not a Prime customer. Head over and catch this one, if you can live with sub-titles, and enjoy this mystery/romance.