I’m considering moving my posts to Sunday evenings. I’ve recently reracked my schedule (and am about to rerack my budget, so, you know, fun times at the Church of Bowie) and I’m out most Saturday evenings, which means I either get this taken care of on Fridays, thus missing my biggest opportunity for pop culture consumption during the week, or I get this taken care on Sundays. I prefer the latter.
And it works best for this week, because the only thing I did this week (besides read this fascinating article about how the heir to white nationalism had his mind changed through exposure to diverse viewpoints) was go see The Handmaiden last night. Our Alamo Drafthouse is finally opening up on Friday, and I could have waited to see it there, but I needed to see it immediately.
Fingersmith is one of my favorite novels, for both its intricate plotting and happily ending historical lesbian romance. Parker Chan-Wook has taken that story, which is originally set in Victorian London, and transposed it to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Sook-hee travels to a beautiful estate to be the handmaiden of Lady Hideko, a Japanese heiress whose uncle lusts both after her fortune and her. But Sook-hee and her partner-in-crime, Count Fujiwara, aren’t there to rescue Hideko, but exploit her in a long con. Fujiwara will, with Sook-hee’s help, marry Hideko, take her fortune, and then send her a madhouse. But the question soon becomes who is exploiting who…
The AV Club review describes the film as unabashedly romantic, and it is. It’s gorgeous and Gothic and romantic. I’ve not seen any of Chan-wook’s filmography, but his reputation precedes him, and I was worried it was going to be too violent for me. I did shriek and close my eyes during a late act torture scene, but it was all of a piece. The Handmaiden reminds me of Hannibal a little bit in its baroque, gorgeous stylization. Objects and even lines become ritualized and imbued with meaning as they’re repeated, but Chan-wook never draws attention to them.
It’s a pragmatic adaptation, for obvious reasons, which allows Chan-wook to explore his usual theme of vengeance (ultimately, Hideko and Sook-hee sic Fujiwara and the uncle on each other) and pure romance. I may have teared up when Sook-hee thoughtfully makes a staircase out of their suitcases during an escape for Hideko to jump a fence with. The shot cuts away before Hideko lands her jump, fabulously. The Handmaiden even offers our lovers a happier ending than the original novel, rooted in women helping women escape and overthrow the men who oppress them.
Although I should posit pure romance in terms of how powerful and palpable the chemistry and love between Sook-hee and Hideko is, not in terms of chasteness—Sook-hee and Hideko start off their sexual entanglement with a marathon session that leaves Sook-hee, dizzy from lust, assuring the seemingly inexperienced Hideko that she must be a natural at this. None of the sex scenes, to my delight, come off as aimed at the male gaze—contrasted against the readings Hideko has to perform for her uncle, which very much are. The last is especially sweet.
I’ll have more to say about The Handmaiden once I’ve digested it further. For now, it should suffice it only to say that this film is so good and lush and thrilling that makes me root for the destruction of a library.