Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Sook-Hee has been specifically chosen to help a conman posing as Count Fujiwara marry rich heiress Lady Hideko, dump her in an insane asylum soon after the wedding, and take her fortune. It all seems to go smoothly as the plan moves forward, but deception lurks in even the most unexpected places. Plus Sook-Hee is developing real feelings for Hideko, making it harder and harder to lie to her face. Can she keep the con going to escape her tedious life or will she tell the truth?
The Handmaiden is based on Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, but set in 1930's Korea under Japanese rule instead of Victorian era England. This story has so much in it: horror, drama, mystery, intrigue, revenge, humor, and romance. The setting is important to show the position the main characters are in. Uncle Kouzuki is the person with the most power in whole film. He has embraced the Japanese regime and abandoned his Korean roots. His house is an awkward mishmash of Japanese and American architecture, symbolizing the forcible way Japan (and the US through Japan) introduced modern ideas and conventions. Hideko should have the most power because she is both noble and Japanese, but Kouzuki threatens her and abuses her at every turn. Sook-Hee and Count Fujiwara are Korean lower class people looking for a way out of their dangerous lives.
The story changes drastically in each act by changing perspectives and backtracking to reveal different meanings and extra scenes. The first act of the film is through Sook-Hee's point of view. It's hard to see why she was chosen for this job since her acting skills are subpar and really should have been fired the first day. Her actions and reactions are refreshing, realistic, and raw. She isn't a professional spy, but a run of the mill pick-pocket who is in way over her head. Her attraction to Hideko is well paced and feels organic. It started with some sexually tense moments here and there, then blossomed as they got to know each other, and finally exploded when they had sex.
The second act of the film shows the first act from Hideko's perspective and changes the meanings of a lot of the scenes from the first act. Small things that weren't focused on are explained now with estra or extended scenes to add. Her relationship with Uncle Kouzuki is much more abusive than Sook-Hee saw. Since she was a child, she was forced to read antique erotic novels out loud in addition to other abusive training that we never see. Her uncle expects her to marry him to complete his ascension to power. She knows about the fake count and works with him to plan to throw Sook-Hee in an insane asylum while switching identities. All the men in her life tell her she's cold and her personality is very controlled for protection from years of abuse. Sook-Hee makes her happy for the first time and complicates her plan for escape.
The love scenes in this film are strictly between two women and the most explicit I've seen in a film. These scenes are beautifully filmed and all about the relationship between Hideko and Sook-Hee instead of the male viewer like so many other lesbian sex scenes. I love that in the second act of the film, it's clear that some of these sex acts are the same as some of the loathed stories she's forced to read, transforming them into something pleasurable for herself and her partner. The couple talks quite a bit during their lovemaking and much of it made me laugh. This film pushes boundaries with these erotic scenes by making them lengthy and meaningful for the characters involved.
The Handmaiden is a unique, boundary pushing film that I didn't have high expectations for. Looking at the poster, I thought it was going to be another misogynistic film from Chan Wook Park like Thirst. However, it's completely driven by women who work to overthrow the men trying to control them. The film is heartwarming and sweet with moments of horror, discomfort, humor, and mystery. The costumes, sets, and cinematography are gorgeous and give the film elegance. All performances are wonderful all around. It's definitely worth your time.
My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins