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[Herald Review] ‘The Handmaiden’ as tender as it is bold

Film is charged with sexual tension and flowery visuals, but ultimately an exhilarating display of female liberation

Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” is a tale of two women who seek to be free -- one from poverty, the other from confinement, and both from control. The costumes and set design may seem excessive, but the frills provide an enticing backdrop for that journey for salvation and serve to create an idealized universe.

Orphaned heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is living under the guardianship of her uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Count Fujiwara, a swindler posing as a nobleman (Ha Jung-woo) seeks to woo her and take her fortune. He hires Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), a poor pickpocket and also an orphan, to serve as a maid to the heiress and to help him win her over. 

Sook-hee is sent to the manor, an architectural blend of English and Japanese elements, where Hideko lives with her uncle. The two begin to explore each other’s company. Sook-hee feels protective of Hideko’s childlike innocence and porcelain beauty. Hideko seeks comfort in the warmth and earthiness of her new maid, who provides an escape from the lady’s usual routine of reading and reciting lessons.

Count Fujiwara makes occasional visits, posing as an art teacher. Hideko’s heart begins fluttering. Sook-hee tries to persuade the lady that she has fallen in love with the count, but Hideko is not so sure.

A poster of “The Handmaiden” depicts Kim Tae-ri (left) and Kim Min-hee. (CJ E&M)
A poster of “The Handmaiden” depicts Kim Tae-ri (left) and Kim Min-hee. (CJ E&M)

The film grabbed attention both at the Cannes Film Festival this month and at home for its explicit lesbian sex scenes. Some suggested that Park’s depiction of sex between the two women is based on misogynistic fantasies. But what they failed to mention is how these scenes are as tender as they are explicit, focused more on conversation and less on the unleashing of desire. The heroines’ intertwining bodies illustrate an intricacy and an intimacy that otherwise might have been lifeless.

“Beauty is important, that’s the basis,” said Park at a press conference after the film’s first local screening in Seoul Wednesday. “But beyond that, I wanted to create a format where the two (women) are conversing with each other ... in a connection that is not an outburst of desire but one that shares ... and considers the other person.”

That connection is the core of the film -- a liberating bond with no gender hierarchy, a human relationship in which even the term “lesbian” loses meaning. If anything, it is the male characters who are caricatured. They are rendered blind to all else -- even money -- by their overwhelming sexual desire, existing only to highlight the intimacy of Sook-hee and Hideko’s journey.

The bulk of the acting is carried by the female actresses as well. Kim Tae-ri exudes an earthiness that is bold and fresh. Moon So-ri, who stars as Hideko’s aunt, adds zest to the film with her brief but electric appearance.

Even the way Park plays with the speed of the three-part story resembles the act of love, starting out slowly and gripped by tension, and then accelerating to a climactic frenzy.

The film will open in local theaters on June 1.

By Rumy Doo (