Damn, Maddie took my opening line. OK then, The Handmaiden is exquisite. Few films this year feel as complete. Usually the best works have one quality that makes them stand out, whether that be a stellar performance or unique visuals. But with The Handmaiden, every aspect of its production is brimming with quality –though I am getting ahead of myself a bit.
Adapted from the novel The Fingersmith by British writer Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden tells the story of a young woman named Sook-Hee, who is hired to be the handmaiden to an isolated heiress named Hideko, who is hidden away in a mansion by her porn-collecting uncle Kouzuki. Meek and coming from a more modest background, Sook-Hee undercuts our assumptions about her early on when it’s revealed that she is a thief who is playing a leading role in an elaborate con by the enigmatic Count Fujiwara, a poor Korean pretending to be a Japanese aristocrat. Together, they hope to get the naïve Hideko to elope with Fujiwara, then once they’ve got access to her inheritance money, dump the sheltered woman in a Japanese madhouse. However, if you’re at all familiar with this story you know that things take a Sapphic turn.
The Handmaiden goes beyond its source material by transposing the action from Victorian England to colonial Korea. A formerly colonised country is reinterpreting a story from this faded Imperial power, which textures the power dynamics between characters in unexpected ways. The heteronormative misogyny of the men is inextricably linked to their desire to become like Japanese and English colonisers. This is reflected in Kouzuki’s mansion, where most of the film takes place. The house is split between Japanese and English styles. The exquisite production design make these Imperial cultures attractive and destructive in equal measure, as such a style is merely an edifice to conceal the tentacular horror of the rotten ideology at their core.
The aesthetics of the film are intricately bound up in its gender politics. The notion that the picturesque is deceptive is very much rooted in misogyny, wherein the (passive) feminine is rendered untrustworthy. The Handmaiden twists this retrograde attitude to its own ends. It is the men who put on a pretty front to deceive, and their thoughts on aesthetics are simplistic. Fujiwara and Kouzuki refer to beauty as something to be possessed and looked at. Ultimately it begins and ends with the porn that Kouzuki hordes. Yet while the film acknowledges the danger of aesthetic pleasure being a deceptive front (there is a recurring motif of forgery), it is not a puritanical condemnation, and instead proposes an alternative beauty that goes beyond the blinkered perception of its male characters. Kouzuki and Fujiwara’s idea of beauty is confined to sight, whereas the sexually charged scenes between Sook-Hee and Hideko engage nearly every other sense: the taste of a lollipop, the scent of rose petals, a tender touch. Despite belonging to a visual medium, The Handmaiden is able capture the way our senses deepen the eroticism of relationships. The arrogant men trap themselves into a corner by seeing, while the women ultimately achieve escape through feeling.
Such senses would not be possible without the wonderful chemistry between the stars Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri. Min-hee’s performance as Hideko is particularly incredible as she upends everything you know about her character at the half-way point. Yet it doesn’t feel like a jarring yank, but instead a smooth progression thanks to the work Min-hee puts in onscreen, and editors Kim Jae-bum and Kim Sang-beom put in offscreen. Indeed, the narrative structure of the film demands excellence on the cutting room floor, as the numerous shifts in perspective radically change our perception of what is happening up until the final scenes. It’s so intricate that even a slight misstep could have muddied the narrative pleasures on offer. This is not just in regard to big plot reveals, but right down to the minute visual cues and symbols which give the story its depth.
For all the high-falutin talk of The Handmiden’s artistic merits and overall sensuality, one element that often gets overlooked is how funny this film can be. Park Chan-wook sprinkles moments of levity in the most unusual of places. A well-timed cut to a woman yawning undercuts the sham wedding between Hideko and Fujiwara, making for an appreciated jab at straight institutions. Most impressive is how the film draws humour from a suicide attempt that only increases the deep affection we have for our lesbian heroines.
There’s just so much to love here, and I haven’t even touched on the costumes. The Handmaiden is unsurprisingly referred to as an erotic thriller, but such a classification glosses over the fact that this is one of the best and most welcome love stories of the year.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2017.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 10…
20th – LADY MACBETH
19th – JACKIE
18th – LOGAN
17th – O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
16th – PADDINGTON 2
15th – A GHOST STORY
14th – THE BIG SICK
13th – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
12th – BLADE RUNNER 2049
11th – THOR: RAGNAROK
10th – THE DEATH OF STALIN
9th – CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
8th – TONI ERDMANN
7th – THE HANDMAIDEN
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of 2017 to read more on our Top 10 films of 2017!