When Sarah Waters published her gothic lesbian suspense novel Fingersmith in early 2002, the United States was beginning a relatively speedy transformation on the LGBT front, building to today’s legalized same-sex marriage and a presidential candidate’s full-throated support for expanded LGBT rights. Buoyed by that shift, Waters’ story of clandestine female lovers caught up in a twisty Victorian plot of deception thrilled critics — and made them blush. The thing about Fingersmith is that it’s so good it doesn’t need the sex, but Waters — who’d written an entire dissertation on the lack of LGBT sex in fiction — 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 and resident of a “baby farm,” where orphans are taken in to learn the fingersmith craft. She’s followed in the footsteps of her dead mother, who was hanged in public to pay for her crimes, which has imbued her with a “go big or go home” ambition. So when the Count (Ha Jung-woo) saunters into the old house with an elaborate plan to trick the shy Japanese Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) out of her wealth and into an insane asylum, Sookee’s eyes light up at the thought of a fortune. The Count — who can pass for Japanese, which affords him even more power — plants her as Hideko’s new handmaiden to help in his wooing of her.
Sookee is the perfect opposite of prim and proper Hideko, who’s stuck on the sprawling estate of the uncle (Cho Jin-woong) she’s supposed to marry. Most of Hideko’s time is spent “studying” in a secret, off-limits library — in a word, both women are stifled. Hideko’s fascinated with this new woman who can’t even show up to work with both shoes on, and as Sookee longingly describes Hideko’s beauty in voice-over, the film quickly turns sensual. Sookee dresses her mistress, her fingers lingering on the silk-wrapped buttons running the length of Hideko’s spine, while the lush production design’s shades of pale pink, honeydew green and baby blue nicely counter that bottled passion with a kind of warmth and innocence.
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Park clips away extraneous characters and scenes from the source material, but the scene from the book that inspired him to make this film in the first place is largely kept intact — and it’s certain to go down as one of the sexiest moments in cinematic history. Sookee bathes Hideko, scattering blush-pink rose petals in the tub, and with light pillows of steam rising from the water, the room — sheer cotton-candy drapes, mahogany tub, brass candelabra, all framed by a mint-green wall paint, all colors of fine chocolates and candies — seems to grow smaller, more intimate. Hideko grimaces at a sharp tooth cutting the inside of her mouth, and Sookee fetches a thimble.
What follows is an achingly prolonged moment of Sookee sanding down the sharp edge, her thumb inside Hideko’s open mouth, the two women’s heads bent close, while the faint grind of the thimble works like a ticking clock, counting down the seconds they stay like this. Park seems to understand that his close-ups (echoing Blue Is the Warmest Color, another lesbian romance directed by a man) can be too intense, so he offers a reprieve by starting a slow pullback shot in the room just beyond the bath, as the sound of the thimble on the tooth continues.
This scene is indicative of the new relationship between the two, as they play dress-up and devise secret jokes. But don’t get too attached. As in any good suspense story, happiness must be upended. And while it’s always clear that this romance is seen through a man’s eyes and sometimes strays to the cartoonish — the cunnilingus scene may have you cringing — men’s false perceptions of women and their motives drive this story of deception.
Park departs from his usual tactic of subjecting his characters to unrelenting physical harm. Instead, he allows these two women a sense of joy and adventure. And even with all the sex and intrigue here, the dialogue flourishes with hilarity just when the tension needs to be cut, allowing Kim Tae-ri especially time to impress with her comic talents. Despite those sometimes implausible, garish sex scenes, Park still manages to depict a loving relationship between two women in the middle of a gripping, snaking, at times laugh-out-loud suspense film.