The Handmaiden

Dir. Park Chan-wook. Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Jo Jin-woong.

145 mins, 2017, S Korea

In The Handmaiden, South Korean director Park Chan-wook brilliantly transposes Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, a story of sex, money and triple-betrayal set in Victorian England, to Korea in the 1930s suffering under Japanese rule.

As it twists and turns and doubles back on itself the story follows the plot of Fingersmith pretty closely. Being familiar with the novel certainly helped. When we came out of the cinema my mother-in-law Muffet, who hadn’t read the novel, said that she hadn’t really understood what was going on at all.
She also told me that she had found the lesbian sex scenes a bit pornographic (and she didn’t mean that in a good way). There are indeed a couple (at least) of very explicit sex scenes between Lady Hideko the Japanese heiress locked away by her evil uncle in a Gothic castle, and her Korean handmaiden Sook-hee. But the scenes glow with such joy and humour and togetherness, that I couldn’t agree with Muffet that they were pornographic, not even a bit. Quite soon after Sook-hee has arrived to take up her new post, we see her helping to give her mistress a bath. It is a scene of extraordinary tenderness and eroticism that sets the tone for what develops between the two young women.
Hideko’s uncle is the pornographer. And the scenes in which Hideko reads out, and in one instance – which I preferred not to analyse too closely – acts out, pornographic fantasies in front of the uncle’s posh male guests transpose wonderfully to the Japanese/Korean setting (and work better, I reckon, than in Sarah Waters’ original).
Throughout the film characters slip from Japanese (subtitled in yellow) into Korean (subtitled in white) and back, Japanese being the master language and Korean that of the colonised. In a story that is very much about people assuming roles and pretending to be what they’re not, the slippage between languages acts as a unifying metaphor for different kinds of passing.
The film as much as the novel is about the subversion of patriarchal power but it adds on another thematic layer: the subversion of colonial power. It is full of secrets, spying (given wonderful effect by the plethora of sliding doors and paper walls that co-exist with the castle’s crenellated towers and sinister dungeon) and surprise reversals; cruelty, tenderness, power and resistance. And yet for all its drama – and yes melodrama – there were many moments of sudden humour.
Ha Jung-woo is very good as the ruthless Korean conman from lowly origins who transforms himself into a suave Japanese aristocrat. Jo Jin-woong plays the wicked uncle as very wicked indeed. Pleasingly, the men eventually kill each other off (in a scene that nods to theJames Bond franchise but is both nastier and funnier) and the two lovely young women sail off together across the ocean to Vladivostock and freedom.

Ismay: a wild journey!