Truly, is there anything better than a story built on secrets shared in a whisper in a dark, quiet house?
The Handmaiden is a filmic adaptation of Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, the switchback suspense story of Sue Trinder, raised in London’s criminal underworld, and Maud Lilly, an heiress practically walled up in an isolated country manner with her uncle. Sue takes the job of a lifetime, helping a con man called Gentleman swindle Maud out of her inheritance. But in the intimate confines of the lady/lady’s maid relationship, Sue begins to fall for Maud—and it turns out things aren’t quite what they seem.
Waters (who also wrote Tipping the Velvet) essentially took the format of a Dickens novel and made explicit the sorts of subtext a Victorianist could spend a lifetime mining out of the period’s literature. It makes for a page-turner that’s gothic and romantic and erotic, filled with high Victorian crime and grime and cages not so much gilded as airless and over-upholstered, and very easily imagined as a classic UK costume drama. (It was in fact adapted by the BBC in 2005.)
Director Park Chan-wook is most famous for the revenge thriller Oldboy and his style is famously bloody, so he’s maybe not the first director you’d picture making a lush costume drama set at a country estate. And yet it works like a charm.
Park has relocated the plot from Victorian England to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Our heroines are Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), a fresh-faced young woman who seems much too straightforward to pull this thing off, and Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), initially stunning and appropriately gothically troubled but remote. Gentleman becomes (fake) Count Fujiwara, played by Jung-woo Ha as a smooth but rather caddish operator you gradually come to see as a comically overconfident lothario. Maud’s uncle is now Uncle Kouzuki, a sort of pervert Drosselmeyer in the hands of Jin-woong Jo.
The film is ridiculously lush and gorgeous. Kouzuki is obsessed with what he sees as the superior cultures of Japan and England and so his Korean country estate is half Japanese design, half looming English manor—a neat and twisty bit of set design that’s got some faint how-does-this-building-even-work, Overlook Hotel vibes. The setting provides a wealth of beautifully maintained grounds and richly appointed interiors for all the longing glances and fraught touches. And there are a lot of longing glances and fraught touches.
Park really lays the eroticism on thick, and The Handmaiden is maybe even more gleeful in its explicit scenes between Sook-Hee and Hideko than Fingersmith—which certainly isn’t shrinking-violet stuff. But it doesn’t feel exploitative or gratuitous, because the movie does such a good job of building the tension between its protagonists. And they are unquestionably the protagonists. This is the story of Sook-Hee and Hideko. Their narratives take some hairpin turns, but the arc of the movie is these two women wresting control of the plot from the men think they’re running the show.
The Handmaiden is basically Park Chan-wook’s Age of Innocence. In his 1993 adaptation, Martin Scorsese took Edith Wharton’s novel about Gilded Age high society and made it into a mob movie. It was a faithful and enjoyable adaptation; it was also just a mob movie without the mob. Park has taken a piece of sexy lesbian historical fiction and filmed it as a revenge story. This is not to suggest this is one of those jobs where a director papers over whatever’s interesting about his original material to do his schtick. (Hello, Tim Burton.) Rather, it’s a wonderful trick that creates a particularly textured viewing experience that’s made especially cool by the fact that Waters was really doing a bit of a remix in her novel. Remixes on remixes!