In Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss.
The Handmaiden — Park Chan-wook’s 2016 film adapted loosely from the 2002 historical crime novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters — is so marvelously constructed that each time I watch it, I think it can’t possibly pull all of this together. And then it does. Like pulling the strings of a corset, each loop tightening to form one intricate piece that’s gorgeous and terrorizing.
Like the novel it’s based on, The Handmaiden is broken into three parts. Unlike the novel it’s based on, The Handmaiden swaps Victorian-era Britain for early 20th-century Japanese-occupied Korea, a historical and political context that backdrops the story and informs its character dynamics throughout. At times, it feels like there are several movies happening at once. A heist movie labyrinths into an erotic thriller labyrinths into a romance marked with dark comedy and mistaken identity and passion. And yet, again, it’s all pulled together tightly, complex and cohesive all at once.
Part one is playful. It’s the campiest part, the one that sets up a straightforward story of deception before blowing it all up. Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) enlists seasoned pickpocket Nam Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) — and this part’s narrator — for the con of the century. She becomes the handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a mysterious woman living in the large horror house of her uncle. Her mother and aunt are both dead, and she has a vast fortune that her uncle wants to eventually marry her for, but Sook-hee is planted to make Hideko fall in love with the Count so that he can make off with the fortune after marrying her and throwing her in an institution. But in a classic twist, Sook-hee starts falling for the woman she’s supposed to be wooing for a man. (The rest of the twists that ensue are much harder to foresee.)
Part two is violent. It’s Hideko’s turn to tell her story, and she rips off the gloves, the corset, the entire masquerade of the narrative surrounding her in part one. In the event that you haven’t seen this movie (please fix that immediately), I really don’t want to delve too far into the movie’s many twists and turns. Readers of Fingersmith know at least a little bit about some of the switcheroos that happen. Deception and lies are such a driving force for the narrative and paint a sprawling picture of desire and power. Subsequent scenes reframe past ones, reveal a new truth or a new side. Repetition is used throughout — visually but also in the dialogue. Hideko’s skills at deception are driven by her tendency to parrot people’s words. The repetition exhilarates. It’s brilliant storytelling, and it’s bolstered by the film’s immersive and haunting and sexy aesthetics.
Part three, to put it simply, mashes it all together and provides an intensely satisfying ending. It’s the kind of movie where you can never quite recreate the experience of first watching it and yet each rewatch rewards. The performances become even more fascinating in the glow of all the deception, double-crossing, and unreliable narration at play.
Who’s watching who? Who’s conning who? Who’s wanting who? Who holds the power?
The story’s deception and unreliability are all tied up in the horrors and erotics of The Handmaiden. The movie’s reputation since it came out four years ago indeed hinges significantly upon its erotics. The movie is simultaneously sexy and fucked-up, and its paradoxes mesmerize. There are the erotics that are violently forced upon Hideko by her uncle, who trains her as a child to read pornographic texts the way his wife used to. She eventually subsumes her aunt’s role entirely, reading these texts for a parlor of creeping men shrouded in smoke and demonstrating various sex positions with a puppet. Her uncle’s perversion is a constant threat.
But then there are the erotics that Hideko seizes for herself, ones that are technically taboo and yet entirely her own. There are classic lesbian period drama erotic images like Sook-hee and Hideko undoing approximately one thousand buttons along each other’s spines, like Sook-hee watching Hideko pull on gloves, like a bathing scene that is maybe the sexiest scene in the whole movie, and I’m including the actual sex scenes.
Now let’s talk about those actual sex scenes! They are long; they are spitty; they are sweaty. Hideko and Sook-hee lap at each other and buck their bodies against each other and want each other so, so much. There are plenty of erotica-adjacent tropes at play, including a specific power dynamic that flips around: Initially, it seems like Sook-hee is teaching Hideko how to have sex, but as with so much in this movie, we can’t fully trust this initial premise. The sex Hideko and Sook-hee have is explicit, but it isn’t exploitive and violent the way the reading sessions are. There’s deception, but there’s also true intimacy and emotion. It is, yes, pornographic, but that’s part of the point. Hideko and Sook-hee are giving themselves access to explicit fantasies that previously were only for the benefit of men. When Hideko reads lesbian erotica for the men, it is entirely for their pleasure. She has no agency. In the dark, with Sook-hee, those fantasies are entirely hers. They perform for each other and for themselves. It is very, very hot. But it also feels both staged and messy, all at once. The Handmaiden throws its contradictions in your face.
After all, the voyeurism, the performance of these sex scenes, it’s all part of the story. Hideko harnesses this all so well as a captivating character who transcends tropes. Other characters try to confine her in boxes. To her uncle, she’s a sex object, a bride-to-be. To the Count, she’s the moneybags and a crazy woman. Sook-hee even sees her as a damsel at times. She is effectively none of these things though, and the survival mechanisms she has developed are complicated. Sexual desires are both threatening and liberating throughout. It all depends on who’s in control of the fantasy.
Want more movies? Check out Autostraddle’s 200 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time.