Note: this is really spoileriffic.
I wanted to, I really wanted to, but I didn’t much like THE HANDMAIDEN.
It was, I’ll grant, visually enchanting. Every frame is beautifully composed—in the opening minutes alone, the mere placement of household objects and the light falling on a car in a forest gave me as much pleasure at looking in a screen as I’ve had in some time.
But the film was filled with baffling storytelling choices that, as time wore on, went for me from mildly irksome to confusing to downright unpleasant.
I admit that my view is coloured by my strong sense of the film’s departures from Sarah Water’s novel FINGERSMITH, on which it is based. I find it hard to know exactly how I would have reacted coming to the story cold. But I don’t see fidelity to source material as an end or virtue in itself. For instance, the transplantation of context to Korea and the introduction of the element of cultural colonisation of Korea by Japan, to me, enriched rather than detracted. So my feelings aren’t (only or mainly) the fangirls’ cry of “They got it wrong!” It’s more that a knowledge of their deliberate redirections makes the substantive failings of the film—and the politics of its choices—clearer.
Anyway, my complaints, in vaguely chronological order (since that is also the sequence in which my irritation mounted):
Initially, I was lightly troubled by how heavily they play on Hideko’s beauty in constructing the romance between the leads, beginning with Sookee being (somewhat unconvincingly and soap operatically) dumbstruck at the sight of her. In general, I’m not a fan of any romances that begin with being blown away with one party’s looks; and this certainly compared unfavourably to the growing fascination across distance that is slowly built up in the novel.
It didn’t help that Hideko is a much more unsympathetic character than her novel equivalent. Sue and Maud are no saints, of course: FINGERSMITH’s power comes from its dramatisation of two individuals finding love and recognition in a kind of radical equality of sins—they both entered exactly the same callous plot to do each other in, at the behest of the same greed which seems like the only freedom they could ever enjoy. Mutual honesty and forgiveness come from realising they made their choices from the same trap—a prisoner’s dilemma—and that they are stronger together than pit against each other.
But relations between Hideko and Sookee are much more unequal. In the film, it is Hideko—rather than Rivers and Sucksby—who invents the madhouse scheme. Hideko is the prime mover, Sookee only the pawn. And Hideko’s cruelties to her servants and to Sookee (including striking both) are much more intense and gratuitous than Maud’s. By doing away with the plots to do with maternal love and mistaken identity, the idea of equality between the two and their common identity is also undermined.
But this could have perhaps been forgiven, as weakness rather than failure, had the film not gone on to pander to precisely the kind of degrading fetishisation of their sexuality which is supposedly being criticised in Hideko’s uncle and is coterie. It’s a delicate balance which is walked in FINGERSMITH: sexual frankness is both a tool for damaging and exploiting Maud and a source of her liberatory connection to Sue. But THE HANDMAIDEN seems to me to tip toward reproducing rather than challenging dehumanising views of the protagonists’ sexuality.
Beside the ways their connection (as described above) is undermined, there’s the dreadful move of having the Rivers analogue (the fake Count—I don’t think we ever learn his real name?) “fall in love”, whatever that means and for whatever it’s worth, with Hideko. This takes place for no discernible reason other than presumably once again her enchanting appearance, since there is no warmth between them whatsoever. This undermines the supposed contrast between the mercenary and exploitative relations exemplified in how the Count/uncle treat Hideko and Sookee, and how the two women treat one another. Why is the Count’s “love” different from Sookee’s or Hideko’s?
Worse, Hideko begins to sexually perform for the Count—and also the viewer, who seems increasingly to be made to take the role of the film’s voyeurs. I don’t count in this the part where she kisses him to drug him, but I can’t find any other way to describe the fact that she masturbates in front of him on their wedding night—if the point was only to fool Sookee, making false noises would have sufficed.
The part which to me most encapsulates the increasingly voyeuristic tone of the film is the closing scene, where Sookee and Hideko re-enact one of the scenes which Hideko had had to describe to her uncle’s audience. Confusingly, they do this with very stagey symmetry, on what I remember (perhaps wrongly) on rather uncomfortable looking furniture, taking positions and roles that are remarkably reminiscent of women laughing alone with salad.
A final, relatively minor, gripe: FINGERSMITH is not subtle. Nobody would accuse the film-makers of lack of drama for simply transcribing its matters to screen. So why they had to dial everything to do with Maud’s uncle up to eleven really escapes me. Is it not enough that he’s a nasty pervert who makes a young girl read erotica to men for fun and profit? Does he also have to be a wife-killer—with an underground torture room—complete with rape-octopus—who wants to marry and fuck his ward—and who can mobilise all the country’s border guards to search for them? Calm down a bit, guys.
So, yeah. I wanted to like THE HANDMAIDEN. But I didn’t.