Sarah Waters' gothic lesbian suspense novel Fingersmith, the story of clandestine female lovers caught up in a twisty Victorian plot of deception, thrilled critics in 2002 — and made them blush. Waters was making a point, normalizing lesbian sex in literature by writing explicit scenes that didn't gloss over the lovemaking with vague or cheeky innuendo. When I'd heard that director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) was adapting Waters' now-classic book to a film called The Handmaiden, I balked: What can a man add to this story?
The answer is a nuanced look at the class schisms that remained (and still remain today) between the Koreans and Japanese, because Park smartly transplants Waters' story from Dickensian London to 1930s Korea. Sure, Park might be at Peak Male Gaze here, but he's also telling a dazzling, darkly comic story about two women fed up with the patriarchy. And despite the director's penchant for cartoonish violence, this is his most restrained film, the gore replaced by some of the steamiest sex scenes you'll see on the big screen.
Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) is a brash young Korean pickpocket enlisted in a scheme of the Count (Ha Jung-woo) to trick the shy Japanese Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) out of her wealth and into an insane asylum. The Count plants her as Hideko's new handmaiden to help in his wooing of her, and the film quickly turns sensual. Sookee dresses her mistress, her fingers lingering on the silk-wrapped buttons running the length of Hideko's spine. It's always clear that this romance is seen through a man's eyes, but men's false perceptions of women drive this story of deception.