My, my, what can I say about The Handmaiden (Agassi)? Do I think it’s going to be one of the most (if not the most) talked about lesbian films of the year? Yes, I do. But do I think it’ll be considered the best? Certainly not by queer women. Why? The male gaze.
I didn’t think I’d be telling you this South Korean film adaptation of out writer Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith would remind me of Blue Is the Warmest Color, both because it’s set in 1930s colonial-era Korea and Japan and because I really enjoyed the BBC miniseries adaptation. But here I am. Then again, Fingersmith the miniseries was directed by a woman while both Blue Is the Warmest Color and The Handmaiden were directed by men. And let me tell you, it shows.
At 144 minutes, The Handmaiden is a lengthy film split into three parts. As will come as no surprise to fans of Fingersmith, the first act has us falling (although not head over heels) for our leading ladies, the second leaves us incredibly frustrated and the third provides a good amount of redemption. It’s one hell of a ride all the way through and pretty damn sexual, although I suspect not for our benefit.
To be clear, The Handmaiden does have its positives. The set design and costumes are amazing, the cinematography is beautiful and Kim Min-Hee especially delivers a strong performance. And perhaps most importantly, the movie keeps you guessing and throws several curve balls your way, as any decent adaption of this beloved novel should. Still, it’s simply not consistent with what romantic and even sexual relationships between women are like. Nevertheless, let me tell you more about the film so you can start to draw your own conclusions.
Sookee (played by Kim Tae-r who makes her feature film debut) is a young woman living in Japanese-occupied Korea with a clan of crooks when she’s approached by a Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). The Count wants Sookee to take on the role of handmaiden to a wealthy Japanese woman he plans on marrying with her help. To better her situation she agrees, and thus begins our journey.
Like Sookee, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee) is an orphan. Unlike Sookee, however, Hideko’s fate seems to be one of marrying her uncle. That his wife, her mother’s sister, killed herself says a lot about the life ahead of her. For now, she has nightmares about her aunt and that’s how Sookee first interacts with her, offering comfort.
But that was late at night. It’s only in the light of day that Sookee gets a good look at Hideko and internally describes her as “so pretty.” In that innocent moment she has no idea of the severity of what’s to come.
From there, things progress as par for the course for a lady and her handmaiden. That is until bathing time. While a servant helping her mistress with her bath is perfectly normal, soothing her toothache by repeatedly thrusting her finger into her mouth and rubbing away at the painful area is more than a little different. There are a lot of standout scenes in The Handmaiden, but if there’s one people are sure to remember solely because of its oddity it’s that one.
Shortly following this moment, Hideko tells Sookee “each night in bed I think of your face.” But because Sookee has a very specific reason for being at her service, she dismisses the idea. Not that much could come of it anyway, what with the Count stopping by for an extended visit.
With the Count’s visit comes his instructions to Sookee to warm Hideko to the idea of marrying him. She does her job too well. When she spots them passionately kissing, she is devastated.
But, so it seems, is Hideko. She tells Sookee that night that the Count proposed, but she’s scared. She shares that she doesn’t know what to expect of her wedding night and looks to Sookee for help. If you think you can guess what happens next, you only know the half of it.
What follows next is some curious dialogue and some sex choreography that is equally as curious. For one, Hideko calls herself a “corpse” because of her cold hands and feet. Well when she gets those hands on Sookee, she’s quick to tell her it “feels fine to me.” Maybe so, but it looks messy. I mean, French kissing is great, but only if you know what to do with your tongue. And getting a head on shot of someone as they’re about to go down on someone is always a bit risky, especially when that same inexperienced tongue makes another appearance.
Hideko’s not actually sexually naive. Like her aunt, she was groomed to read erotica to a roomful of rich men, sometimes whipping them and sometimes being whipped. And sometimes she even performs sexual acts on a wooden mannequin while suspended in the air. That right there folks is how you put an original spin on a story that’s already a mindfuck.
Want more? The Count was one of those rich men, though of course he’s not rich at all. Instead he concocted a plan with Hideko to get her away from her uncle and escape with her whole fortune risk-free by using Sookee as a pawn in their game.
But make no mistake: Hideko and the Count do not have a romantic relationship. She’s not interested in him and while he does find her attractive, it’s her money he really wants. And while it’s easy to feel sorry for Sookee, she’s no innocent in this. She’s just as much of a liar and manipulator.
So what kind of a love story is this anyway? Well I guarantee you it is one. And spoiler alert (because, to be fair, I’m holding A LOT back), the lesbians actually do get a happy ending, even if it is capped off with a sex scene that involves balls, fake as they may be. Come on, I had to give you something for fear that you’d completely write off this film.
By the way, the Count and Hideko’s uncle also get what’s coming to them, although one gets a more grotesque end than the other. Yeah, there was a lot of squirming in the particular theater room I sat in for various reasons.
Without doubt, The Handmaiden is an entertaining watch that will keep you on your toes. But I was hoping it would tug at the heartstrings and it just didn’t do that often enough. Still, it’s sure to be a standout film in 2016 that’ll have a lot of people talking and you might just want to get in on the conversation.
The Handmaiden has its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 10 and will be showing again at the festival on Sept. 11. The film is scheduled for release in the U.S. on Oct. 21.