Fantastic Fest: “The Handmaiden” dramatizes women reclaiming their sexuality

Charles Liu

Korean and Japanese-language drama  “The Handmaiden” is everything that “Fifty Shades of Grey” was not — it’s highly dramatic and uses sex as a springboard for serious discussion of what romance should be.

It wastes no time establishing a straightforward plot set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s. The charming con man Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) recruits Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to pose as a maid for the heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Their plan: make the Lady fall in love with the Count, who will then declare her mentally insane and have her committed to an institution. Then, the Count and Sook-hee will make away with her fortune.

But director Park Chan-wook isn’t known for being straightforward. “The Handmaiden,” based on the novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters, will certainly raise eyebrows when Sook-hee and Lady Hideko unexpectedly fall in love with one another, threatening the Count’s plan. What follows is a masterful series of twists that will have viewers guessing which character is in control of the situation.

Throughout the picture, Park engages with female sensuality and eroticism. Lady Hideko’s perverted uncle (Cho Jin-woong) has amassed a collection of literary pornography which he forces her to read to him and his male friends. To them, women are objects of pleasure. Sexual activities with women are not equal interactions but reinforcements of patriarchal dominance.

When Sook-hee and Lady Hideko channel their passions into their own special relationship, they reclaim their sexuality and develop an even-footed dynamic of give and take. There are few discretion shots when Sook-hee and Lady Hideko make love, but the film is shot beautifully and tastefully enough that it’s hard to call the sequence pornographic.

The cast deliver fantastic performances, and as the centerpieces of the story, Kim Tae-ri and Min-hee Kim are wonderful as the leads. Ha Jung-woo is particularly funny as the devilish Count, who assumes his roguish charms are more effective than they actually are.

“The Handmaiden” only falters when it drags out its ending for too long. What’s there often works, but it is definitely an afterthought to the chunk of movie that precedes it. The finale’s saving grace is its perfectly framed last shot, a good cap off to this emotional whirlwind.

Park balances suspense, romance, horror, violence and humor in his signature vibrant and seamless way for he knows that a serious film can also be an endearingly fun one. “The Handmaiden” may be one of this year’s best at Fantastic Fest; it’ll be hard to top an experience that has been crafted so well.

“The Handmaiden”
Running Time: 145 minutes
Rating: R
Score: 4.5/5 stars