The Handmaiden: an erotic, fun, lesbian thriller


The Handmaiden is the South Korean adaptation of the popular lesbian novel, Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. This adaptation was a tough sell from all angles. Sarah Waters novels, from Tipping the Velvet to Fingersmith are beloved by the queer lady community. As they should be, they tell stories about complex lesbian characters through our own lens, without the intrusion of the male gaze.

South Korea, also struggles with homophobia and queer acceptance and it was hard for producers to get buy-in for the film. While Fingersmith was set in Victorian England, The Handmaiden is set in Korea, while it was under Japanese colonial rule. Although one would think this would be too hard of a turn for the story to handle, The Handmaiden makes it work, and the change feels organic. For those of you who haven’t read Fingersmith, the plot is loosely this- a young Japanese woman, Lady Hideko, lives on a secluded estate with her uncle, a young Korean woman, Sook-hee is hired to serve as her new handmaiden, but is secretly involved in a conman’s plot to defraud her of her large inheritance. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot that will leave the viewer guessing until the last act of the film, when we are finally let in on what’s really happening.

The movie is beautifully directed by Park Chan-wook and starring Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong and Kim Tae-ri. All the main players in the movie give amazing performances, with the standouts being the two female leads, Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as Lady Hideko and Sook-hee. Although the movie is billed as an erotic thriller, at it’s heart, The Handmaiden is a love story. Even in the midst of unrelenting ugliness, Lady Hideko and Sook-hee have moments of beauty and laughter and watching them fall in love is a pleasure. It also helps to break up the ugliness of Water’s original story, by providing lush backgrounds and comedic breaks into a story that could easily cross the line into incredibly depressing.

There is a ton of sex in this movie. Afterellen has criticized the movie saying that the sex is unrealistic, or ‘seen through the male gaze.’ However, I think this is a simplistic view. Mostly because, as Americans, we are seeing the movie through our own cultural lens and applying our own experiences to it. We don’t know what the male gaze looks like in Korea, so how can we possibly know if it’s being applied here? I’m going to judge the sex scenes based on whether or not they were enjoyable. And they were! So go and enjoy watching two beautiful women, who love each other, enjoying having sex with each other. The film is already more progressive than most American portrayals of lesbian couples, because *spoiler alert* the girls don’t die at the end. The film also has a 94% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes!

Have you seen the movie? Let us know what you thought in the comments!



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