The Handmaiden (2016)


June is LGBTQ Pride Month, so we’re featuring fabulous queer frock flicks each Thursday. Queer folks have always been part of human history, long before there were words to describe these identities and orientations. But now we can and will say GAY! (and LESBIAN! and TRANS! and BI! and QUEER!) proudly, whether or not others try to legislate or pray it away.


A second adaption of Sarah Waters novel, Fingersmith, this movie is set in Korea under Japanese occupation, so somewhere between the 1910s and 1930s. The Handmaiden (2016) has a few changes to the plot, but if you know the twists in the book or previous adaption, you know the basics of what happens here.

The Korean theif-turned-maid is Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), and the Japanese heiress is Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Some differences are that the storyline involving Sook-hee’s mother figure is almost entirely removed, and there’s more emphasis on male characters like co-conspirator Count Fujiwara and Hideko’s uncle, Kouzuki. Both of these men are horrible fuckers, and the uncle is particularly sadistic. This film is also more explicit than the previous TV adaption, partly in the sexual relationship between the two women, but also in terms of physical violence.

The Handmaiden received a lot of critical acclaim, and I’ll agree that it’s beautifully made. But something about it falls flat to me. For a story ostensibly about two women, we really don’t get inside their heads that much. Yet we’re given lengthy exposition by the men. While certain parts of the story seem to critique the Male Gaze (since that’s part and parcel of Uncle Kouzuki’s obsession), there isn’t quite enough told from the female point of view to follow through. And honestly, I felt the sex scenes were rather cliched and not very realistic or hot.

The costumes also confound me — what year is it??? Most descriptions say the movie is set in the 1930s, but the Western-style fashions Hideko wears range from 1910s to 1930s. Is she supposed to be out of touch? Unclear. I couldn’t find anything from costume designer Jo Sang-gyeong, so I don’t know what went into the designs specifically. They’re beautiful and definitely contribute to the heightened aesthetic that director and co-writer Park Chan-wook creates.

The Handmaiden (2016)

Sook-hee in Korean dress, Hideko in Western.

The Handmaiden (2016)

Hideko’s daytime outfits look more 1910s.

The Handmaiden (2016) The Handmaiden (2016)
The Handmaiden (2016)

Hideko’s dressier outfits look more 1930s.

The Handmaiden (2016)

Trying on each other’s clothes, though in this movie it’s not a plot point like it is in the BBC version of the story.

The Handmaiden (2016)

Obligatory undies scene.

The Handmaiden (2016)

Hideko wears formal kimono for the readings she’s required to give.

The Handmaiden (2016)

But she also wears kimono in romantic scenes with the Count & after they marry.



Have you seen both The Handmaiden and Fingersmith? How do they compare in your opinion?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

6 Responses

  1. florenceandtheai

    It admittedly may be just me, but I found the book very confusing. I lost track of whose plot was occurring when. Does either film adaptation make it clearer? I promise I’m not a complete goober, and I actively look for BIPOC and queer authors. NK Jemisin and A.K. Lockwood are current favorites.

    • Al Don

      “Does either film adaptation make it clearer?”

      I went into The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) blind, being unfamiliar with the source material, and had no trouble understanding it upfront. In that sense, I’d say it’s clear. Now, it does get progressively weirder as the film goes on, but thankfully it doesn’t try to confuse the audience early on. It lets the audience get used to the world of the story for a minute before it introduces twists and turns.

      So I would recommend checking it out.

      • Bex

        Yes – Handmaiden substantially reworks and simplifies the back third of the novel. We lose some of the mirroring and inverting between the two lead women that that part of the book deals with but in return, I think it’s a lot easier to follow. I also think Handmaiden does probably the best job of pacing out how it reveals the central twists of the plot. I really enjoy it!

  2. Al Don

    I quite enjoyed the film was I saw it. Visually pleasing, refreshingly salacious, and I appreciate the “happy” ending. Kim Min-hee is great in it and I think she’s elegantly pretty; the camera seems to love her face.

  3. Karen K.

    I loved this adaptation and also loved Kim Tae-Ri (who plays the handmaiden) in Mr. Sunshine, a wonderful series which has 24 episodes and absolutely stunning costumes, both traditional Korean and western costumes from the 1870s. Lots of pretty pretty people in beautiful clothes!

  4. A.Cinn
    I wondered the same re: Hideko’s distinctly un-1930’s costumes. According to costume designer Jo Sang-gyeong ^, the in-universe explanation is that time stopped in the 1910’s for the sheltered/confined Hideko. The practical reasons were that 1. the script had a corset scene, and 2. Jo felt that the 1920’s and 1930’s were overdone in (Korean) film already.