When I first heard that Park Chan-wook, who is one of my favourite directors, was making a gothic lesbian romance movie based on the book “Fingersmith” but set in 1930s occupied Korea, I could have cried with joy – and after the rapturous response it received after premiering at Cannes my hopes for it hit an all time high. Having now seen it, it is in my opinion the best film of 2016 and one of my all time favourites. The cinematography and production are brilliant, making it visually stunning. But it is the gripping plot line and amazing performances of Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri (The Handmaiden is Kim Tae-ri’s first leading role, after she was chosen out of 1500 other actresses) and their portrayal of two women who are undeniably drawn to each other; despite the schemes that are afoot that makes the film so special.
The plot contains several twists that kept me on my toes. They are cleverly explained by repeating previous events, but from a different character’s perspective. This also provides more insight into the main characters, Hideko and Sook-hee – and what is driving them to be a part of a defrauding scheme. The progression of their relationship from employer and employee to lovers is lovely to see and the two actresses do such a good job of showing the love the two hold for each other, that at times I almost felt as though I was intruding.
Sub-plots are something that I feel only a small number of films successfully manage to pull-off, particularly when they are as complex as the main story. However, Park manages to maintain a super intriguing sub-plot involving Hideko’s creepy uncle, his insistence that she reads pornographic novels to his equally creepy male clients and a basement which holds something that everyone is terrified of (I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s pretty gross).
Sadly, it is all too common for LGBT films to be emotionally exhausting, angst-ridden and have an unhappy end. This is something that The Handmaiden thoroughly rejects, with the two protagonists quite literally sailing victoriously into the sunset together. With that in mind, hopefully more filmmakers will follow in Park Chan-wook’s footsteps and create stories where LGBT people get to have a happy ending, we do deserve it after all.
by Megan Gibb