Kim Tae-ri plays a servant who falls into a sexual relationship with her employer, whose fortune she hopes to steal, in “The Handmaiden.” (Amazon Studios-Magnolia Pictures)

Kim Tae-ri plays a servant who falls into a sexual relationship with her employer, whose fortune she hopes to steal, in “The Handmaiden.” (Amazon Studios-Magnolia Pictures)

‘The Handmaiden’ undermined by puerile voyeurism

  • By Wire Service
  • Friday, October 28, 2016 1:30am
  • Life

By Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post

Following his disappointing first foray into English-language filmmaking with the violent and visually arresting but silly “Stoker,” Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook returns to his native land with “The Handmaiden,” a thriller set in 1930s Korea, during Japanese colonial rule.

Unfortunately, the director also falls back on some of his worst habits with this lurid tale, adapted by Park and Chung Seo-kyung from the 2002 novel “Fingersmith” by Welsh author Sarah Waters. Those peccadillos include his reliance on style over substance, and a facility for action — in this case, lesbian sex as imagined by a heterosexual male — that gives short shrift to his characters’ interior lives while devoting at times unseemly attention to their physical behavior.

The film relocates Waters’ story from Victorian England to the Korean home of the wealthy Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is living with her uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a collector of vintage literary erotica. A Korean con artist posing as a Japanese nobleman known as the Count (Ha Jung-woo) hires the Korean petty thief Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) to take on the position of Hideko’s handmaiden, to assist him in a scam: Make Hideko fall in love with and marry him, whereupon the Count will have Hideko declared insane, splitting her estate with Sookee.

The fact that these characters, both Japanese and Korean, are played by Koreans, adds a thin layer of irony, reinforced by the film’s implicit critique of colonialism — one that’s been baked into the circumstances of the story. Both the Count and Sookee look at the Japanese with a mix of resentment and envy.

Such political subtext, however, takes a back seat to a more prominent plot line, which centers on the romance that blossoms between Hideko and Sookee. In short order, the two women are shown gazing at each other suggestively as Sookee gives her mistress a bath, and then writhing together in an overheated parody of Sapphic lust in Hideko’s bed. One particularly silly shot is set up as if filmed from inside Hideko’s genitalia.

But there are other, better twists coming. The film is told in three parts: the first from Sookee’s point of view; the second (which includes an unexpected betrayal) from Hideko’s; and the third, a synthesis of the first two chapters, revealing yet another double-cross.

As far-fetched as it sounds, such torque-y plotting works, catching the audience off guard, even if the quasi-feminist payoff to the story is less satisfying than it should be, thanks mostly to the film’s puerile fascination with girl-on-girl action.

This being a Park Chan-wook film, there are more surprises in store, including the appearance of a marine invertebrate that will be familiar to viewers of the director’s “Oldboy.” There’s also the pointlessly fetishistic insertion of a knife in a body part so inappropriate that uncomfortable squirms, not titillation, seem the only reasonable response to the scene, not to mention the whole point of the movie.

‘The Handmaiden’ (2 stars)

Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s thriller about a plot to steal a noblewoman’s estate, set in 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule, is undermined by lesbian sex scenes that enter voyeuristic territory.

Rated: Unrated. Contains strong sexuality, nudity, violence and obscenity.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Guild 45th

Talk to us

More in Life

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay walks into the Prohibition Grille along Hewitt Avenue in Everett Wednesday Dec. 5, 2012 while reportedly filming an episode of Kitchen Nightmares at the Everett restaurant. (Mark Mulligan / The Herald)
Even more films and TV shows filmed in Snohomish County

Readers point out projects previously missed in this series, from reality television to low-budget indie films.

Daniella Beccaria / for The Herald

15-month-old Kantu attempts to climb a pumpkin at Stocker Farms in Snohomish on Sunday, September 20th, 2015. Stocker Farms offers a U-pick patch, farm animals and a corn maze.
Best pumpkin patch in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied, here are the results.

Everett comedian Taylor Clark performs stand-up in 2023 at The Triple Door in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Mike Bryk)
Comedian Taylor Clark to film first special Friday in Everett

The skateboarding funny-man will record an hour of his stand-up at the Historic Everett Theater.

Local musician Alex Johnston, whose newest album "Daylight Fooldream" pairs with short film he made with help from his partner Mikaela Henderson, sits with his morning coffee on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, at Narrative Coffee in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Folktronica musician shoots 37-minute visual album on iPhone in Everett

Alex Johnston, 31, describes his music as ”if Coldplay and Bon Iver had a love child.”

Death of parent with child. Piece of paper with parents and children is torn in half.
Helping children cope with the hard realities of divorce

I’s important to set aside one’s feelings and find a way to make this challenging transition as comfortable for children as you can.

In Belgium, each type of beer has its own glass – whether wide, tall, or fluted – to show off its distinct qualities.
Rick Steves’ Europe: Bruges brews lift a weary traveler’s spirits

The Belgian city is a mecca for beer lovers from around the world.

Children’s author Barbara Herkert to lead Story Time at Edmonds Bookshop, Friday September 29th, 9:30-10:00 am!
Author to read her new kids book at Edmonds bookstore

Author Barbara Herkert will read “This Old Madrone Tree” Friday at Edmonds Bookshop.

Flowering knotweed Persicaria amplexicaulis firetail in the morning light.
Save for one infamous variety, fleece flowers are easy to fall in love with

This long-blooming, easy-to-grow perennial comes in many desirable varieties. But watch out: One is an invasive knotweed.

A view of King Street Station in Seattle, Washington from an Amtrak Cascades train to Portland, Oregon from Everett, Washington on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Ride the rails on Amtrak Cascades from Everett to Portland

Make new friends and let Amtrak do the driving on this 5-hour trip past sea, city and forest.

Most Read