The film is an adaptation of Fingersmith, the much-lauded 2002 novel by Sarah Waters, with the story translated from Victorian Britain to 1930s Korea. The action follows Sook-hee, a skilled pickpocket, who is coerced by a con-artist, the self-styled Count Fujiwara, into a scam to obtain the fortune of enchanting Japanese heiress Lady Hideko. Imprisoned in a bizarre English-Japanese style country manor by her uncle, who is attempting to force her into marriage, Hideko hires Sook-hee as her handmaiden. But Sook-hee’s task, to have her new mistress fall for the ‘Count’, becomes compromised when she finds herself sexually attracted to her instead.
The Handmaiden’s rarity doesn't only extend to its plot but to its forefronting of female sexuality, and its deft handling of its numerous sex scenes that could easily have suffered from the leeriness of the male gaze and, indeed, claims of gratuitousness for the nudity on show. Instead, it's this obsessive male sexuality that is frequently undercut and exposed for exactly what it is: pretty repulsive.
The heiress’ uncle (and his grotesque, ink-stained tongue) makes a living from involving his niece in dramatic readings-cum-burlesque performances for a select group of nigh-on drooling male ‘art’ collectors. Abusive, manipulative and selfish, the men attempt to bully the women into fulfilling their physical and monetary desires while the women are drawn to each with a sexual energy and magnetism that the men can only dream of extracting from them. As such, both vulgarly voyeuristic and self-involved, they remain blind to the women’s wants and eventually suffer for their oversights.
The Handmaiden's overt sexuality doesn't detract from its merits as a thriller. While there's certainly a lull around halfway through – a dialogue-heavy scene in the uncle’s library which slows the pace a touch too much – its three-part structure is perfectly suited to stripping away the plot's many layers. The storytelling throughout is laced with real moments of intimacy and humour; very few of its 145 minutes drag.
Buoyed by a strong cast and even stronger cinematography, The Handmaiden is a saucy, heady and lethal, cinematic cocktail that merits all the excitement.
|What||The Handmaiden film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
14 Apr 17 – 14 Jun 17, Times vary
|Price||£determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here for more details|