A few weeks ago, I came across a movie trailer for a film called The Handmaiden. I had no idea what The Handmaiden was about, but between the overlay of techno music accompanied by wailing violins (“Red Sex” by Vessel), and the almost Kubrick style scene cuts, I knew I had to see it.
Imagine my surprise when I learned the film was adapted from Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith. For those of you who don’t know Ms. Waters, she writes mostly lesbian fiction set in Victorian-era England. Think George Eliot or Elizabeth Barrett Browning meets the L Word. She also happens to be one of my favorite authors, and I have read her novels Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet repeatedly. I have also watched the BBC adaptation of both of those novels more times than I care to count, and… wait for it… Ms. Waters also inspired me to write November’s End, my paranormal period piece set in 1905 America.
In both the novel and the BBC adaptation of Fingersmith (yes, I believe Waters intended the double entendre), Sue, the pickpocket/fingersmith, is in league with a conman to swindle Maude out of her fortune. Maude has been a practical prisoner of her sadistic uncle, who has raised her to be his secretary. That in and of itself isn’t awful, but the uncle has also cultivated Maude into a sort of performer who reads sexually explicit novels for a group of “gentlemen” book collectors. The whole thing gets exponentially more complicated when the two women fall in love. In typical Waters’ fashion, love never looks like you imagine it, and naturally, the relationship complicates that whole scamming Maude plan. It’s safe to say mayhem ensues.
That last bit about mayhem brings me back around to The Handmaiden, and – if we’re feeling lucky today – my point. This adaptation of Waters’ Fingersmith is brought to us by South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, of Oldboy, Thirst, and Lady Vengeance fame. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino got cranked-up on meth in an open carry state during The Purge, and you pretty much have Chan-wook’s style.**
Chan-wook sets his telling of Fingersmith in 1930s Korea under Japanese colonialism. Where Waters and the BBC crafted a narrative around the Victorian England class system, Chan-wook weaves an exquisitely told story in the context of oppressed and oppressor. And what a web he weaves.
The first half of The Handmaiden follows both Waters’ and the BBC renderings fairly closely. Naturally, names are changed to account for the Korean setting, and Sue becomes Sook-hee, and Maude is Hideko. Then part two begins, and the point-of-view shifts to Hideko’s (Maude’s) perspective. From the first flashback scene with a ten-year-old Hideko, and her sadistic uncle and his housekeeper, you know things are about to get real dark. By the way, this is altogether right. I always felt the BBC adaptation didn’t pay enough respect to the impact Maude’s life would have on her. She was surrounded by wealth and privilege, but was never meant to benefit from it. She was exposed to sexually explicit writings by an overbearing and abusive man, but BBC failed to capture the ramifications of that. This is an oversight Chan-wook is all too happy to correct in The Handmaiden.
In parts two and three of the film, Chan-wook takes you down a path littered with eroticism, kink, BDSM, psychosexual abuse, unrealized fantasy, patriarchal tyranny, and hedonistic pursuits. Depending on how that sounds to you – exquisitely delightful, grotesquely off-putting, or someplace in between – you should know those are some of the same themes Waters’ speaks to in her novel. Chan-wook simply lays these themes bare in stylized, beautifully rendered shots.
Now, a warning. The Handmaiden is not a flawless adaptation of what I think is a pretty-close-to-flawless novel. You are certainly engrossed in the two characters’ growing attraction and affection for one another, but then they have sex… lots of sex… and you’re reminded that a straight guy is making this film. The various scenes are all a bit clinical for my taste, and I can’t believe I am saying this, but they can be skipped without losing any of the story arc.
What you should look for instead, and what The Handmaiden seamlessly accomplishes, is tension from knowing glances, and an intricate weaving of an erotic and intense thriller. This movie, like the novel it is based on, is not for the squeamish. There is no shame should you find yourself squirming a bit in your chair, but I would encourage you to push past that initial discomfort. You will be rewarded.
**The author is in no way implying Mr. Tarantino takes any illegal drugs, endorses open carry, or condones the policies depicted in The Purge… I don’t know his life.