Women in Love
by Kelley Dong

The Handmaiden
Dir. Park Chan-wook, South Korea, Magnolia Pictures

There are four young men lined up on a bed, leaning against the wall of their cramped one-room apartment. They’re masturbating furiously together, to the sounds of a young woman moaning next door. They can only hear her, but when the camera pans through the walls, we see what they cannot. Her kidney is failing, causing her to toss and turn in pain. Not knowing—or even worse, not wanting to know—this, the men translate her cries into a source of sexual gratification. The scene, lasting only one minute of Park Chan-wook’s 2002 film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, is as funny as it is grim, with a disorienting effect that is even more effective than the ultraviolence he is most celebrated for. Here, we see the essence of his portrayal of masculinity as a construct dependent upon women to imbue it with meaning.

This slow pan from a room of self-indulgent men to a suffering woman reflects the trajectory of Park’s 25-year filmography. In this way, his work can be divided into even halves. The earliest features (The Moon Is... The Sun’s Dream, Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Oldboy) revolve around isolated men without purpose, in a world where women remain on the outermost circle as sexual partners, victims, and bystanders. All of Park’s following films are portraits of women on the margins—a mother bent on revenge (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), a suicidal factory worker (I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK), an abused housewife (Thirst), and a young girl on the brink of adulthood (Stoker)—and all are, with the exception of Stoker, his English-language debut, cowritten by screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung. Park’s tenth film and fifth collaboration with Chung, The Handmaiden, continues this journey with a joyride driven by the hearts of its female characters.

The Handmaiden, Park’s return to Korean cinema after a seven-year break, is an erotic thriller about the turbulent love affair between a Korean girl and a Japanese heiress in Japan-ruled Korea during the 1930s, as recalled by the women in voiceover narration. Ironically for Park Chan-wook, idolized for his male revenge fantasy Oldboy, the film is an attempt at feminist filmmaking. Its structure embodies not only the female gaze but also female subjectivity, the subconscious, memory, and so on, with swift camera movements and alternating chronologies. The Handmaiden even implicitly comments on the current, hypermasculine state of the Korean film industry, replacing the archetypal all-male ensemble with two women, forced to face off against impossibly dim-witted men.

The Handmaiden begins with the entrance of a Korean conman named Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who has a proposition for Nam Sook-hee (newcomer Kim Tae-ri), a village girl who sells orphaned Korean babies to Japanese families. The count’s plan is as follows: while he disguises himself as a Japanese book collector and wins the favor of wealthy Korean Japanophile Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), Sook-hee will become the handmaiden of his niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), and persuade her to marry Fujiwara. Fujiwara will then send his new wife to an asylum, running off with her inheritance. Charming yet obnoxious, Fujiwara is convinced that all will work out in his favor. But once he hands the baton to Sook-hee, Fujiwara sets himself up for the least expected of failures, involving an octopus, a pervert with an ink-stained mouth, a glass of poison, and fugitive women.

When she enters Kouzuki’s hybrid Japanese and English-style mansion, Sook-hee takes over the narrative. This act of repositioning pays homage to an earlier film, director Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film The Housemaid, which frames the housemaid character as the “other” invading the traditional middle-class home. However, in The Handmaiden, the home is a Japanese estate built on Korean land, and the main act of invasion is an unexpected, emotional one: Sook-hee’s love for the Japanese Lady Hideko. Soon enough, close-ups of Hideko’s cheeks, breasts, back, and lips flood Sook-hee’s and the audience’s vision. Blinded by jealousy, Sook-hee stops playing along as the Count’s sidekick. She becomes clumsy, nervous, and unable to sleep. As Hideko begins to reciprocate, The Handmaiden picks up speed, diving headfirst into a dizzying series of scams, switches, and double-crosses.

The film’s examination of performativity is in keeping with a portrayal of life under Japanese colonialism, during which Koreans were ordered to register with Japanese names and speak Japanese. The popular memory of this period is far less nuanced, with many Korean historical films operating on a binary of Korean versus Japanese, code for good versus evil. Entirely disinterested in adhering to this tradition, The Handmaiden focuses on the relationship between the Korean elite, who supported and helped enforce Japanese power, and the Koreans living under their control. As most of the film’s characters speak in Japanese in public, Korean becomes a secret code exchanged in private.

Therefore, when Hideko begins to speak to Sook-hee in Korean, a language she learned in secret, the act is not only a romantic gesture but also an assertion of their unity, though the two are worlds apart.
The Handmaiden complicates the dynamic between Sook-hee and Hideko by giving Hideko the opportunity to tell a very different story. From a young age, Kouzuki forces Hideko to perform live readings of erotic texts, using her—a Japanese woman symbolizing the Japanese identity he can never attain—to impress his Japanese visitors. This process resembles Fujiwara’s employment of Sook-hee as a pawn to steal Hideko’s inheritance, and the juxtaposition presents a lose-lose scenario in which neither supporters nor opponents of the Japanese are innately good or free. Though this metaphor obscures Hideko’s power and privilege over Sook-hee, the film suggests that Hideko never had much of this to begin with.

Continuing Park’s interest in literary adaptations, The Handmaiden is inspired by Welsh author Sarah Waters’s gothic crime novel Fingersmith. Although the film is overall faithful to its source text, its most important difference is in location, moving from Victorian-era England to colonial-era Korea. Besides reflecting a trademark of Park’s work, the transfer of Fingersmith from West to East also parallels a major target of satire in the film: the Japanese colonists’ and Korean elite’s appropriation of European aesthetics as proof of sophistication. This makes for a hilarious remake of the group masturbation scene from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, as men gather every night with flushed faces, strained whimpers, and crossed legs to listen to readings of the coveted Japanese and English novels secured in Kouzuki’s underground library. One night, after Hideko finishes reading with a knowing look in her eye, one nervous man covers his crotch. These novels also provide an element of delusional escapism; while the film’s male characters are distracted, Sook-hee and Hideko’s affair, and their plan to escape the estate, go unnoticed.

Beyond its references to Marquis de Sade, its Western-inspired set designs, and Park’s well-known admiration of Hitchcock, The Handmaiden doesn’t obscure its Koreanness. Its sincere sentimentality echoes the emotional excess of Korean Golden Age melodramas, and its gaudy sensuality pays tribute to the erotic dramas of the aforementioned Kim Ki-young, a major influence on Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Thirst. Kim similarly gained notoriety for his unconventionally frank approach to sexuality as a mechanism for social disruption. One particular sex scene in The Handmaiden, filmed by a spinning remote-controlled camera above a bed, is reminiscent of a scene from Kim’s 1972 film Insect Woman, a psychological drama about the relationship between a married professor and a sex worker who moves into his home. In the climax of the film, the couple has sex on a glass table as the camera cuts to multiple, jarring angles while circling them.

Regarding sex, Park seems well aware of his hetero maleness, filming the women’s bodies from a distance, established by limited nudity, frequent pans, and a preference for wide-shots. In an effort to own his outsider status, he uses the male gaze against itself. The film’s elaborate sex scenes between the women, which involve reenactments of Kouzuki’s erotic texts, intentionally induce the discomfort of watching women love one another through a lens constructed by men. Though there remains the lingering question of whether a glamorized lesbian sex scene can ever be more than just that, the film avoids clarity to drive its point that oppression is hauntingly pervasive.

Ultimately, The Handmaiden’s biggest flaw is not its gaze but its rushed pacing. The film frames Sook-hee and Hideko’s feelings as natural, but lacks a balanced depiction of a relationship that is not only physical or sexual but also, if not more importantly, emotional. The few scenes of emotional intimacy are some of the film’s most mesmerizing moments and proof of the natural chemistry between Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee, who carry the tension between passion and caution in every subtle movement. The rarity of such scenes forces the relationship to escalate rather quickly. But considering the dearth of queer narratives in Korean cinema, that The Handmaiden even features two women in a relationship who do not die, part ways, or mask their romantic feelings, is significant in itself.

What many loosely refer to as Korean Queer Cinema has existed for decades, but a majority of films with LGBTQ protagonists only receive limited distribution, while the few with mainstream success mainly feature gay Korean men and often face harsh censorship. Recent years have seen the release of more films about queer Korean women like July Jung’s 2014 film A Girl at My Door and Lee Hyun-ju’s 2016 film Our Love Story, but none compare to the success of The Handmaiden, which is now the most widely distributed Korean film in history, opening in 175 territories. Its immense popularity suggests progress, but it is still too soon to make predictions. Nonetheless, The Handmaiden is one for the books, flaws and all. And while Park’s distance from his subjects is one of these flaws, his position as a filmmaker operating beyond and actively against popular conventions enables him to work without an obligation to anyone but Sook-hee and Hideko, to whom the story truly belongs.