The Handmaiden

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The Handmaiden
The Handmaiden film.png
Theatrical release poster
Hangul 아가씨
Revised Romanization Agassi
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Produced by
  • Park Chan-wook
  • Syd Lim
Written by
  • Park Chan-wook
  • Chung Seo-kyung
Based on Fingersmith
by Sarah Waters
Starring
Music by Jo Yeong-wook
Cinematography Chung Chung-hoon
Edited by
Production
companies
  • Moho Film
  • Yong Film
Distributed by CJ Entertainment
Release date
Running time
145 minutes [1]
CountrySouth Korea
Languages
  • Korean
  • Japanese
Budget 10 billion
(approx. $8.8 million) [2]
Box office$38.6 million [3] [4]

The Handmaiden (Korean : 아가씨; RR : Agassi; lit.'"Lady"') is a 2016 South Korean erotic psychological thriller film directed by Park Chan-wook and starring Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo and Cho Jin-woong. It is inspired by the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, with the setting changed from Victorian era Britain to Korea under Japanese colonial rule.

Contents

The film was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It was released in South Korea on 1 June 2016, to critical acclaim. It grossed over $38 million worldwide.

At the 71st British Academy Film Awards, the film won the category of Best Film Not in the English Language.

Plot

Part 1

In Japanese-occupied Korea, a con man operating under the sobriquet of "Count Fujiwara" plans to seduce a Japanese heiress named Lady Hideko, then marry her and commit her to an asylum in order to steal her inheritance. He hires a pickpocket named Sook-hee to become Hideko's maid and encourage Hideko to marry him.

Hideko lives with her Uncle Kouzuki, a Korean man who helped the Japanese take over his country in exchange for a gold mine. Kouzuki then uses this wealth to feed his obsession with rare books, selling forgeries to further accumulate money and books. Sook-hee's main job is to help Hideko prepare to read for Kouzuki's guests. Returning frustrated from a reading, Hideko demands Sook-hee sleep next to her. The two end up making love, under the pretext of preparing Hideko for her married life with the Count. Sook-hee begins expressing reluctance about the plan, but when Hideko herself suggests she loves someone other than the Count, Sook-hee insists on the marriage. Hideko slaps her and violently throws her from the room.

When Kouzuki leaves on business for a week, Hideko and Fujiwara elope. After cashing out Hideko's inheritance, it is revealed that Hideko's naïveté was part of the con. She and Fujiwara double-crossed Sook-hee and convinced the asylum that she is the "Countess" to have her committed in Hideko's stead.

Part 2

A series of flashbacks show that Hideko's “reading practice” was in fact Kouzuki teaching her to erotically read sadistic pornography since she was five years old. The flashbacks show a regime of psychological and physical abuse that eventually degrades the sanity of Hideko's aunt, who is eventually found hanged from a tree in the yard, and Hideko takes over as the reader for the auctions. When Hideko questions the description of a hanging in a book she has to read, Kouzuki tells her that he murdered her aunt using torture devices in the basement after she attempted to run away.

In the more recent past, the Count realizes seducing Hideko would be impossible and instead includes her in the plan to elope and then split her inheritance. When Hideko expresses her fear of her uncle, the Count promises her a vial of fast-acting poison as a wedding present, so that she can never be taken to the basement. Hideko demands the Count find her a girl to hire as a maid, to commit to an asylum in Hideko's place.

While being instructed by the Count, who takes advantage of Sook-hee's illiteracy, Hideko unexpectedly falls in love with her. Hideko tries to confess her love, but when Sook-hee insists the marriage go on, Hideko throws her from the room and tries to hang herself. Sook-hee saves her and both admit to their plots. Hideko helps Sook-hee write a letter to her family to say she has teamed up with Hideko, and to hatch a plot to get Hideko and Sook-hee away from the men who have been manipulating them. Hideko shows Sook-hee the books she was forced to read and Sook-hee begins destroying the library. Hideko calls Sook-hee "her savior" and joins in destroying her uncle's collection.

Part 3

Sook-hee's friend Bok-soon sets a fire at the asylum and poses as a firefighter to rescue Sook-hee. Hideko poisons Fujiwara's wine, causing him to pass out while she takes the money and leaves. The women reunite and flee together, disguising Hideko as a man to avoid detection.

Kouzuki captures Fujiwara upon receiving a letter from Hideko detailing Fujiwara's deception. He tortures Fujiwara in his cellar with his collection of antique bookmaking tools and presses him for sexual details about his niece. Fujiwara makes up a story about their wedding night but a flashback shows that he watched Hideko masturbate before cutting her hand on a knife to stain her sheets, refusing to consummate the marriage. When Kouzuki presses for more details, Fujiwara convinces him to give him one of his cigarettes. After smoking, a disgusted Fujiwara refuses to give further details. Kouzuki notices the cigarettes are producing blue smoke. Fujiwara reveals that his cigarettes had been laced with mercury and the toxic gas within the smoke kills them both.

On a ferry to Shanghai, China, Sook-hee and Hideko celebrate their newfound freedom by making love once again.

Cast

Production

In December 2014, it was reported that Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo and Cho Jin-woong signed on for the film. [5] Kim Tae-ri was selected from 1,500 candidates to play the role. [6] Shooting for the film began in June 2015 and concluded in October 2015. [7] [8]

The books The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife and Jin Ping Mei were featured in the film. [9]

Release

In February 2016, CJ Entertainment announced that The Handmaiden was pre-sold to 116 countries, including to Amazon Studios for the US. [10] The film premiered in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation, and Ryu Seong-hee won the Vulcan Award of the Technical Artist for her art direction work on the film. [11] [12] [13] The film was also screened in the Special Presentations section of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, where The Playlist named it as one of the 15 best films of the festival. [14] In South Korea, the film was released on 1 June 2016 and sold more than 4 million tickets. [15] [16] [17]

In the United States, the distribution of the film was handled by Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures. The film opened in limited release across five cinemas in New York City and Los Angeles, [18] [19] and played in 140 additional cinemas in the following weeks. [20] Eventually, the film grossed more than $2 million in the United States theatrically; [21] the film outgrossed Stoker and became the highest-grossing Park Chan-wook-directed film in the United States. [22] It was released on DVD in the US on 24 January 2017 and Blu-ray on March 28, 2017. [23] [24]

In the United Kingdom, the distribution of the film was handled by Amazon Studios and Curzon Artificial Eye. The film grossed more than $1.8 million in the United Kingdom theatrically, and became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in the UK in 2017. [25]

Reception

Critical response

The Handmaiden received critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 95%, based on 210 reviews, and an average score of 8.3/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Handmaiden uses a Victorian crime novel as the loose inspiration for another visually sumptuous and absorbingly idiosyncratic outing from director Park Chan-wook." [26] On Metacritic, the film holds a weighted average score of 84 out of 100, based on 40 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim". [27] The Economist described the film as a masterpiece. [9] Benjamin Lee of The Guardian ranked it four out of five stars and described it as "a hugely entertaining thriller". [28]

Response to the explicit scenes

The film's numerous sexually explicit scenes between the two main female characters sparked some controversy. Laura Miller at Slate described the scenes as "disappointingly boilerplate" and featuring "visual clichés of pornographic lesbianism, [the actresses'] bodies offered up for the camera’s delectation." [29] However, The New Yorker 's Jia Tolentino said that "the women know what they look like, it seems—they are consciously performing for each other—and Park is deft at extracting the particular sense of silly freedom that can be found in enacting a sexual cliché." [30]

Top ten lists

The Handmaiden was listed on numerous critics' top ten lists. [31]

In 2019, The Guardian ranked The Handmaiden 41st in its 100 best films of the 21st century list. [34] In 2020, The Guardian also ranked it number 1 among the classics of modern South Korean Cinema. [35]

Accolades

List of awards and nominations
YearAwardCategoryRecipient(s)Result
2016 Alliance of Women Film Journalists [36] [37] Best Non-English-Language Film Park Chan-wook Won
Austin Film Critics Association [38] [39] Best FilmThe Handmaiden4th Place
Best DirectorPark Chan-wookNominated
Best Supporting Actress Kim Min-hee Nominated
Best Adapted ScreenplayPark Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyungNominated
Best CinematographyChung Chung-hoonNominated
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
Blue Dragon Film Awards Best FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Best DirectorPark Chan-wookNominated
Best ActressKim Min-heeWon
Best New Actress Kim Tae-ri Won
Best CinematographyChung Chung-hoonNominated
Best Art DirectionRyu Seong-heeWon
Best Music Jo Yeong-wook Nominated
Technical AwardJo Sang-kyeong (costume design)Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics [40] Best Cinematography Chung Chung-hoonWon
Best Foreign Language Film The HandmaidenWon
Buil Film Awards Best FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Best DirectorPark Chan-wookNominated
Best ActressKim Min-heeNominated
Best New ActressKim Tae-riWon
Best CinematographyChung Chung-hoonNominated
Best Art DirectionRyu Seong-heeWon
Best MusicJo Yeong-wookNominated
Buil Readers' Jury AwardPark Chan-wookWon
Busan Film Critics Awards Best New ActressKim Tae-riWon
Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or Park Chan-wookNominated
Queer PalmPark Chan-wookNominated
Vulcan Award Ryu Seong-heeWon
Chicago Film Critics Association [41] Best Film The HandmaidenNominated
Best Director Park Chan-wookNominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyungWon
Best Cinematography Chung Chung-hoonNominated
Best Foreign Language Film The HandmaidenWon
Best Art DirectionThe HandmaidenWon
Critics' Choice Awards [42] Best Foreign Language Film The HandmaidenNominated
Dallas–Fort Worth Film Critics Association [43] Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
Director's Cut Awards Best ActressKim Min-heeWon
Best New ActressKim Tae-riWon
Florida Film Critics Circle [44] Best Foreign Language Film The HandmaidenRunner-up
Best Cinematography Chung Chung-hoonRunner-up
Korean Association of Film Critics Awards Top Ten Films of the YearThe HandmaidenWon
Best CinematographyChung Chung-hoonWon
IndieWire Critics Poll [45] Best FilmThe Handmaiden7th Place
Best DirectorPark Chan-wook5th Place
Best Original Score or SoundtrackThe Handmaiden8th Place
Best CinematographyThe Handmaiden4th Place
Best EditingThe Handmaiden8th Place
Los Angeles Film Critics Association [46] Best Production Design Ryu Seong-heeWon
Best Foreign Language Film The HandmaidenWon
Melbourne International Film Festival Most Popular Feature FilmThe HandmaidenRunner-up
New York Film Critics Online [47] Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
San Diego Film Critics Society [48] [49] Best Foreign Language Film The HandmaidenNominated
San Francisco Film Critics Circle [50] [51] Best Adapted Screenplay Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyungNominated
Best Foreign Language Film The HandmaidenWon
Best Production DesignRyu Seong-heeWon
St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association [52] Best Production DesignRyu Seong-heeWon
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenRunner-up
Toronto Film Critics Association [53] Best Foreign Language Film The HandmaidenRunner-up
Vancouver Film Critics Circle [54] Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association [55] Best Foreign Language Film The HandmaidenNominated
Women Film Critics Circle [56] Best Foreign Film by or about WomenThe HandmaidenWon
2017 Asian Film Awards [57] [58] Best Supporting Actress Moon So-ri Won
Best Newcomer Kim Tae-riWon
Best ScreenplayPark Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyungNominated
Best Production DesignerRyu Seong-heeWon
Best EditorKim Jae-bum and Kim Sang-bumNominated
Best Costume DesignerJo Sang-kyeongWon
Baeksang Arts Awards [59] [60] Grand PrizePark Chan-wookWon
Best FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Best DirectorPark Chan-wookNominated
Best ActressKim Min-heeNominated
Best Supporting ActorCho Jin-woongNominated
Best New ActressKim Tae-riNominated
Best ScreenplayPark Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyungNominated
Chunsa Film Art Awards Best DirectorPark Chan-wookNominated
Best ActressKim Min-heeNominated
Best New ActressKim Tae-riNominated
Technical AwardRyu Sung HeeNominated
Jung Jung HoonNominated
Dorian Awards [61] Director of the YearPark Chan-wookNominated
Foreign Language Film of the YearThe HandmaidenWon
LGBTQ Film of the YearThe HandmaidenNominated
Visually Striking Film of the YearThe HandmaidenNominated
Houston Film Critics Society [62] [63] Best PictureThe HandmaidenNominated
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
National Board of Review [64] Top 5 Foreign FilmsThe HandmaidenWon
National Society of Film Critics [65] Best Foreign Language Film The Handmaiden2nd Place
Online Film Critics Society [66] Best Picture The HandmaidenNominated
Best Foreign Language Film The HandmaidenWon
Satellite Awards [67] Best Foreign Language Film The HandmaidenNominated
Saturn Awards [68] Best International Film The HandmaidenWon
Best Costume Design Jo Sang-kyeongNominated
Seattle Film Critics Society [69] [70] Best Picture of the YearThe HandmaidenNominated
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Best Production DesignRyu Seong-heeWon
Best Costume DesignJo Sang-kyeongWon
2018 British Academy Film Awards [71] Best Film Not in the English Language Park Chan-wook and Syd LimWon
Empire Awards [72] [73] Best Thriller The HandmaidenNominated
London Film Critics Circle Awards [74] Foreign Language Film of the Year The HandmaidenNominated

See also

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