The Handmaiden is a thriller-erotica masterclass you end up liking so much you wish you had watched it sooner. The cinematography is breath-taking, alternating between wide, panning, and overhead shots of lush forests colored in the plumage of spring, and sudden close-ups of dilating eyes, twitching moustaches, and arcane bourgeois possessions like nooses and snake sculptures that convey the absurd excesses of human behavior.
The plot centers on the relationship between Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), heir to a fortune, and Sook-hee (Tae-ri Kim), a professional thief who becomes the Lady’s personal aide. In the first part, Sook-hee secretly conspires with the fake Count Fujiwara (Jung Woo-ha) to steal the Lady’s fortune by persuading her to marry the count, who then plans on throwing the Lady into a madhouse and splitting his fortune with Sook-hee. However, as parts two and three reveal, the Lady has hatched her own plan to use Sook-hee to escape her sadistic uncle who raised her for the purpose of reading pornographic books that he sells to other rich Japanese men in annexed Korea.
The Handmaiden Trailer
In the midst of all the plot twists and cruel betrayals, an uncanny love affair, crossing national and class barriers, emerges between the Lady and Sook-hee, ultimately to the demise of the fake Count, as well as the Lady’s perverted uncle. The Handmaiden is easily one of the most explicit lesbian-themed movies to come out in the last few years. Director Park Chan-wook, careful to always center the queer female gaze, leaves little room for audiences to imagine what occurs during the steamy, and erotically bi-lingual (Japanese and Korean), sexual encounters between Lady Hideko and Sook-hee.
But beyond the engaging plotline, brilliant cinematography, and candid sensual sexuality, the lasting draw of this film is its message that, in a world dominated by men, and the desires of men, women can genuinely love and support each other – even in that way.