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The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

This review will be spoilerific; I will use tags, but if you havenít seen this film, what you really need to know is that it is a sumptuous period drama full of double crossing that looks great but suffers from some pacing problems.

The novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, on which the story of this film is based, is one of my favourite books. As you can imagine I was pretty excited that Park Chan-wook, director of Oldboy was going to be making a film version. This is important because if you watch this having read the book, it is a different film experience - a lot of what happens wonít come as a surprise (although some will) and itís more interesting to note the differences and divergences. I donít want this to be one of those reviews that complains the whole time that the book is better (although it is), but some comparisons are inevitable.

For a start, the setting has been changed from Victorian England to 1930s Korea and Japan. There is a lot of switching between Korean and Japanese (indicated in the subtitling by switching between white and yellow subtitles), some of the subtlety of which is probably lost in translation. Itís more than just transplanting the story into a different country - references have been changed to make it fit, and itís done well.

SookHee, the eponymous handmaiden, is a thief who has come into the service of Lady Hideko in order to help persuade her to marry a duplicitous Count who plans, once married, to claim Lady Hidekoís fortune and have her declared mad and shut up in an asylum. What nobody bargains for is Sook Hee and Lady Hideko being attracted to each other.

The whole of the first part of this was really good. There was the odd camera swoop or shake that was a little disorientating, but generally it looks just fantastic, a sumptuous, almost fetishistic recreation of a grand house full of corsets and silk gloves and secrets. Tae-ri Kim who plays Sook Hee is really great, whether the scene calls for drama, comedy or romance.

Then the scene reaches a certain point, and reverses, going back to fill in the backstory of one of the other characters, which includes re-showing a lot of scenes, or parts of scenes, from a different point of view. This was tedious and largely unnecessary and my attention started to wander. Also in this second section is an extended version of a sex scene which happened in the first part. I imagine this is a fairly divisive scene, depending on not only your tolerance for explicit sex but your taste for it. Eroticism is even more subjective than comedy or romance - and if it doesnít do it for you, it doesnít do it. For me, it was simply implausible - these are supposed to be two characters who are having a kind of sexual awakening together; whatever they know about sex, this is the first time (at least for one of them) of putting it into practice. The total absence of shyness or awkwardness in the second take on the sex scene, and the idea that they would just go at it for hours in every conceivable position stretches plausibility and smacks of the director getting carried away.

Thereís also a sense that the showy explicitness of this sex scene (and another towards the end of the film) are slightly at odds with the message of the rest of the film. If Hidekoís uncle is condemned as a pervert and a pornographer, what does that make the director of this film? In the book, the counterpoint to the uncleís pornography is
WARNING: "Fingersmith" spoilers below
Sue and Maud discovering genuine sexual feelings for each other, and also turning the tables by creating their own erotica.
Itís not anti-sex, just anti-women as victims of a powerful male gaze. In the film, this counterpoint just seems to be more of the male gaze.

The most irksome thing in this second section, however, is a scene which was omitted from the first part, which shows
WARNING: "The Handmaiden" spoilers below
Sook Hee and Hideko confessing to each other and arranging their own plot together
which basically undermines the first twist of the film at the end of the first part, so it is no longer the characters double-crossing each other but the director double-crossing the audience. The other trouble is that after that it is too clear where their loyalties lie, and it sucks a lot of the tension out of the third part of the film, reducing it to Ďwill they get away with it?í and missing out some of the adventures
WARNING: "The Handmaiden" spoilers below
(the stay in the asylum is particularly brief)
and twists of the book
WARNING: "Fingersmith" spoilers below
which included babies being swapped and all sorts.

Then there is basically an extended epilogue which throws in a bit of gratuitous torture, as if Park got bored with all the restraint and started feeling nostalgic for the days of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance.

Altogether, there is an inconsistency in pacing, tone and theme that stop this from being a really great film. I read that there is a directorís cut which is even longer, in fact I was tempted to check the time during the movie just in case they were screening the extended cut by mistake. I think fifteen minutes could easily have been cut from this.

But it looks fabulous and, the problems of the middle section aside, itís great fun.