Hot Romantic Intrigue in “The Handmaiden”
By Skip Sheffield
“The Handmaiden” is a kind of Asian Masterpiece Theatre filled with intrigue, twists, sumptuously beautiful sets, costumes and a healthy dollop of torrid girl-on-girl sex.
If that got your attention, read on. The story is set in Korea in the 1930s during the brutal Japanese occupation. The handmaiden of the title is Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Vi), a bright and pretty orphaned Korean girl who got her education in the streets as a pickpocket. Sook-Hee is recruited by a con man who calls himself Count Fujiwara (Jung-Woo Ha). The bogus Japanese Count wants Sook-Hee to become handmaiden to the beautiful, lonely heiress named Lady Hideko, who is legitimate Japanese royalty and quite wealthy. Count Fujiwara wants Sook-Hee to ingratiate herself with Lady Hideko so that she may plant seeds of desire in the lady for the alleged Count. Then Fujiwara would sweep in, sweep Lady Hideko off her feet, marry her, then have her declared mad and committed to an asylum so he can steal her fortune. But first he must get past Hideko’s controlling Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-wong Jo), who has his own designs on her fortune.
Count Fujiwara is a villain of the lowest sort, so when his plan goes off the rails, it is quite satisfying.
Director Chan Wook Park co-wrote the screenplay, based on Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel “Fingersmith.” He previously directed the violent, intriguing “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance.” “The Handmaiden” is in both Korean and Japanese. To help keep things straight, the Japanese subtitles are in yellow. Be prepared to invest some time. The movie is two hours 24 minutes long. This movie could be considered a feminist triumph, Korean-style. I have been to both Korea and Japan, and I know the cultures are quite different. Let’s just say the Koreans are a lot more hot-blooded. It doesn’t get much hotter than when the women turn the tables on the scheming men.