The Handmaiden, from director Park Chan-wook is, in a word, spectacular.
Based on Sarah Water’s exceptional novel Fingersmith (which itself was given the live-action treatment as a BBC miniseries), The Handmaiden is a pretty fair retelling of the story, set in Japanese-occupied Korea.
Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-hee, the small-time thief and conwoman recruited to become a maid for a wealthy eccentric’s ward, Hideko, played by Kim Min-hee. Both actresses were fantastic and, had I not already known the story, would have blown me away at the plot twists.
The setting works. The characters switch back and forth between Japanese and Korean fluidly, each language functioning as it’s own symbol. The clothing and homes presented are a pretty wonderful period setting. But the thing that seemed strangest at the beginning of the movie, the main house being of western design, makes perfect sense in creating a space that is nowhere and nowhen, even as the story particulars place the story firmly in a particular place and time.
Like the book, the first part of the story is told twice, once from each woman’s perspective and, like the book, it’s eyebrow-raising to realize just how much seeing it from one perspective changes everything. The final part of the movie is where it deviates from the novel, but other than one scene that could have been cut out completely, the end is satisfying, if a bit pandering.
If you’re a long-time reader here, you know my biggest gripe about Japanese live-action is the pacing and lack of appropriate intimacy. Kisses are dry-mouthed and passionless. Korean live-action works do not suffer from either of these problems. I’m not a huge consumer of Korean dramas or movies, but every one that I’ve watched has been smartly paced and the romance or sex has been appropriate to the story.
Which brings me to the sex. There is some. And the camera gets way closer than I like, but otherwise is fine. Unlike other viewers, I prefer to imagine that I’m not in there with them, that I’m not part of the scene at all. Not as voyeur or participant. That said, the sex is only slightly cinematic and thankfully, not extended to the point of being boring. (Which was part of the problem with Blue is the Warmest Color, that the sex scenes went on and on and on and on… the actresses became exhausted and the comic creator was disgusted.)
There are some deviations from the book – several are consistent with the characters as they are presented. The penultimate scene and final scene could have been cut whole and nothing would have been lost. But the movie still was a pretty solid adaptation of an excellent book – and how often do I say that?
The movie will be coming out from Magnolia Pictures in English on October 21, 2016 and will be available on Amazon Instant Video. I recommend it highly. Check out the trailer for yourself.
Characters – 9
Story 9 (Except for the last bit)
Cinematography – 9
Lesbian – 10
Overall – 9
There is some graphic violence (and some implication of other icky things) but it’s not what you think.