Movie Review | The Handmaiden
Movie Summary: A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her. (IMDb)
This is such a good film that, once you’ve finished watching it for the first time, you’ll want to watch it again to discover what you missed. It’s not that the film tricks you or deceives you about what’s going on (although the characters certainly do their best), it just omits certain information from the first part of the film that the second then explains.
The premise is relatively simple: set during the 1930s, when Japan controlled Korea, a lowly Korean con-man intends to pose as a Japanese Count in order to seduce a naïve Japanese Lady, Hideko, into marrying him, before sending her off to a mental hospital and leaving him with her riches.
To assist him in his goals, he sends Sook-hee, a pickpocket, to act as Hideko’s handmaiden and convince her to marry him. Problems arise with this plan when Sook-hee and Hideko begin to fall in love with each other, and that’s when the twists and turns really begin.
To describe any more of the plot would be revealing major spoilers which really should be experienced first-hand. By the end of part one, you’ll feel one way about the characters we’ve met, believing that you’re watching a tragic love story, but this is really isn’t that kind of film.
Incidentally, the film is split into three distinct parts – the first part is from Sook-hee’s viewpoint and the second from Hideko’s, both narrating their respective sections of the film, while the final section is from a neutral perspective as the story heads towards its climax wonderfully.
The Handmaiden is a beautiful film, filled with excellent performances and a gorgeous score to go along with the excellent story, which ranges from being darkly comedic to psychological thriller without a single misstep on the way.
The two leads, Tae-ri Kim and Min-hee Kim, are both wonderful, and have amazing chemistry together – far more than many man-woman pairings have ever had on-screen. You genuinely feel that you are watching two women actually fall in love with each other and there isn’t a single moment that feels emotionally false between them.
In fact, the only thing about the relationship that felt even remotely close to artificial was how Hideko seemed to excel at lesbian love-making in the incredibly erotic, explicit and lengthy sex scene between the two women, despite having never been intimate with anyone before.
Even then, this skill is still cleverly played for laughs, with Sook-hee declaring that Hideko must be a natural and unaware that the Lady’s uncle makes her perform readings of classical Japanese erotica for audiences of men and so is not quite as innocent as she appears.
And about the sex in this film? Seriously, do not let kids watch this. The Handmaiden has the rating it does for a reason, and even if the first of the three scenes is quite tame (the first two are the same event – once in Sook-hee’s part, the other in Hideko’s), the second and third are incredibly explicit.
Praise must also go to the two antagonists of the film, Jung-woo Ha as ‘Count Fujiwara’ (in inverted commas as we never learn for definite what his real name is) and Jin-woong Jo as Uncle Kouzuki, who are both horrible, manipulative individuals who see the two women as nothing but objects to serve their greater desires.
The Handmaiden really is an exceptional example of film-making that should be seen by as many people as possible. The first part of the film does last a lot longer than either of the other two parts, but you’ll be having so much fun with what’s going on, the lengthy running time will just fly by.
Why a 10/10? I have to admit to not being a fan of dramas on the big screen as they too often make me wonder why they couldn't have just been made for TV or a streaming service. But a foreign-language period drama? Wow, was I not interested in this film, despite the glowing reception abroad in 2016.
However, I went into it with an open mind and I am extremely glad I did. I think knowing nothing about the film or the novel it was adapted from (Sarah Water's Fingersmith) helped a great deal, because I totally bought into where the film was headed before it yanked the carpet out from under my feet.
I got so caught up in the events on-screen that I didn't notice the very lengthy running time, because the story was so propulsive that I became eager to take it all in. It helps that The Handmaiden is visually stunning and completely justifies being made for the big screen.
And all of that is just part of why it gets a 10/10 - to go from a film that I had less than zero interest in, to one I simply couldn't tear my attention away from rocketed The Handmaiden to the top of my 2017 best films list. I couldn't stop thinking about it for a long time afterwards either, and I cannot recommend it enough. Put aside your expectations and simply savour a truly wonderful film.