Adapting Sarah Water’s lesbian novel Fingersmith for cinema may seem like an incongruous task, but Korean director Park Chan Wook (Oldboy)’s The Handmaiden is a sumptuous, erotic thriller.
Transporting the material from Victorian London to Japan-occupied Korea in the 1930s, we meet Sokee (Kim Tae-ri) a stealthy pickpocket who is enlisted to become Lady Hideko’s (Kim Min-hee) handmaiden so she can marry the Count (HaJung-woo). Hideko has been groomed by her pervy uncle to read erotic stories to gentleman, and he uses her money to amass a library of pornographic books and illustrations. The Count plans to seduce Hideko and send her to a mental hospital so that he can usurp her vast fortune. As Sokee gets drawn into Hideko’s life, she starts to fall for her mistress and is reluctant to enact their initial deception.
Told in three parts, but in a Rashomon-like fashion, the film unfolds a bit like striptease with a slow reveal in Part 1 that gives way to many surprising twists that the audience may not catch. It’s a playful film that mines the erotic out of objects like silver decorative balls, the colourful array of Hideko’s wardrobe, and the screens that separate Sokee and Hideko’s rooms. There’s much to marvel over in a frame, as cinematographer Chung Chung Hoon luxuriates over the gothic settings with the tudor-like castle contrasting with the Japanese built servant quarters.
There’s real heat and passion between the women of the film, that’s ironically contrasted with grotesque male sexuality. At the erotic readings, the books Hideko reads from are all centred around the male perspective – so that when Hideko and Sokee finally come together it is a refuge away from the constraints of the men around them. The rarity in focusing on a woman’s experience of sex is apparent in the two central sex scenes, because they are vital to the narrative and signal Hideko and Sokee’s agency to explore each other away from male expectations.
While these scenes can be seen as heavily shaped by the male gaze, Chan Wook makes it feel earned in the women’s trajectories. Subverting the expectations of female sexuality is rife throughout the film, especially when Sokee destroys the pornographic library by ripping up the books, spraying them with ink, and throwing them into the water, thereby winning over Hideko and changing the stakes of the narrative.
Park Chan Wook adapts a very feminist novel in a fascinating and ironic manner in The Handmaiden, allowing its female characters to explore their sexuality in subversive and liberating fashion.
The Handmaiden shows at Vancouver International Film Festival 2016 on October 7 and 14.