by Emilee Prado.
Perhaps most remarkable for their history of disreputability, erotic thrillers usually amass what is referred to as a cult following, but only a few of these films can tout overwhelming critical and commercial success. So what did Park Chan-wook’s 2016 dark and gripping lesbian love story, The Handmaiden do for English-speaking audiences to win a BAFTA, earn an honorable place in our film canon, and gross over $38 million worldwide? In part, the film is expertly crafted, cinematically stunning, and directed by a South Korean auteur who has been building international acclaim for the last three decades, or at least since the release of his Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy or Mr. Vengeance, 2002; Oldboy, 2003; Lady Vengeance, 2005). But something more is at work here.
The Handmaiden is set in the 1930s in Japanese-occupied Korea and—despite graphic scenes of torture and abuse—it is a predominantly uplifting story about liberation. Because The Handmaiden and thrillers in general rely so heavily on building suspense by withholding and revealing pieces of plot, it is nearly impossible to discuss this film without revealing what happens. Fair warning about impending spoilers here and throughout.
The premise: A con man called Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) employs Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as a handmaid for a wealthy Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Sook-hee is supposed to convince Hideko to marry Count Fujiwara rather than Hideko’s uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) who is also after Hideko’s money. Count Fujiwara’s plan is to marry Hideko, take control of her wealth and then dispose of her by committing her to an asylum. As the film unravels, Hideko turns out to be in on the con with the fake count to get out of marrying her uncle. She is also in cahoots with and in love with Sook-hee who helps her escape both of these predatory men. Before we dive into a more detailed look at The Handmaiden, let’s see where this film is situated within the spectrum of its subgenre, the erotic thriller.
Thrillers come in a wide variety (e.g. crime thrillers, psychological thrillers, action thrillers, political thrillers, etc.). But what makes The Handmaiden proudly wear the badge of erotic thriller rather than attempt to cling to something like historical thriller? Who or what decides how much sexual imagery is needed to label a film as erotic? Extended discussions could ensue. Genres can be tricky and annoying, and classifying a film as this or that frequently evokes disputes. For brevity here, I’ll posit that The Handmaiden is an erotic thriller mainly because of the features it shares with other films that utilize sex and suspense as the driving emotional force. The main purpose of cramming films into Matryoshka-style genre and subgenre boxes might be to help a film find its audience. So let’s peek inside at what traditions The Handmaiden either jettisons or carries to discover what audience it was created to find and how it accrued success.
Themes that The Handmaiden shares with other erotic thrillers include but are not limited to: suggestions or acts of incest (Cat People, 1982; Oldboy, 2003; Queen of Hearts, 2019), sexual gratification in response to bodily mutilation (Matador, 1986; Crash, 1996; 8mm, 1999), acts of voyeurism (Peeping Tom, 1960; Sliver, 1993; Tesis, 1996), plotting to kill to inherit money (Body Heat, 1981, Black Widow, 1987; Mortal Passions, 1989), love triangles (Dot and the I, 2003; The Housemaid, 2010; The Taste of Money, 2012), and queer or queer-coded villains (Dressed to Kill, 1980; Cruising, 1980; Basic Instinct, 1992). This final one is not perpetuated but inverted by The Handmaiden. It might also be fitting to add an underlying reliance on scheming, lies, and deception to everything within the reach of the thriller genre.
The main villains in The Handmaiden are the male characters themselves and the ideas they represent: greed for money and the uncontrollable lust of heterosexual men. Hungry eyes for Hideko’s wealth, which Uncle Kouzuki plans to transmute into the acquisition of rare erotic books, perpetuate his pursuit of a sexual relationship with his niece. Although it is mentioned that the two never consummate, Kouzuki has subjugated Hideko into nothing more than an object of sexual desire since she was a child. Through flashbacks, we see that he treated his former wife (Moon So-ri) in the same way, turning both women into a spectacle for men as they were forced to perform erotic readings in Kouzuki’s secret library. Intercourse with a male is largely equated with violence in the film and also—perhaps as a jab at the traditionally male gaze/male ego of the camera—a source of comedy. The climax of one of Hideko’s readings ends with her acting out an illustration that is missing from the book. She becomes suspended in the air and hangs limply backward, impaled on the male equipment of a mannequin. This is the first of several times Hideko is compared to a corpse. The men who are watching her performance become flustered and this moment invites laughter. As they gasp, nervously dab at sweat, and attempt to conceal their erections, the film’s audience is not supposed to identify with their arousal; we are supposed to be both amused and disgusted by it.
Similarly, Count Fujiwara—at first, a possibly likable character because of his cleverness and charm—is eventually also portrayed as a violent subjugator. When Hideko offers a kiss as part of her ploy to escape, Fujiwara says, “I never learned to stop half-way” and “women feel the greatest pleasure when taken by force.” He climbs on Hideko and attempts to force himself on her until he passes out from the opium she snuck into his drink and then into his mouth. She leaves him half-naked on the floor and flees back to Sook-hee. When he comes to, face down, and discovered by Kouzuki’s men, it is another moment where the audience is invited to chuckle—to mock his thwarted lust rather than long for gratification with him. Count Fujiwara then asks to be handed his trousers because goodness-forbid Kouzuki’s men see what he was previously so eager to display for a woman.
Violence is further tied to male heterosexuality with acts of bodily mutilation. At the reading where Hideko first sees Count Fujiwara, she reads a “Sade-esque” story that contains a male narrator who wants to trade places with the female and be whipped by her. Here, Count Fujiwara imagines himself in that scene and becomes particularly sweaty. Later, after Kouzuki’s men capture Count Fujiwara and bring him back to the house, Kouzuki tortures him for his role in the trickery which led to Hideko and Sook-hee destroying the prized library. Count Fujiwara is tied to the seat-less chair shown earlier. Kouzuki lists one of favorite erotic stories each time he chops a finger from Count Fujiwara’s left hand (using a long phallic knife). Count Fujiwara does not scream in agony; he gasps, grunts, and moans. More of the same when Kouzuki runs a (phallic) drill through Count Fujiwara’s right hand. This scene ends with both men dying by Fujiwara’s poisoned cigarette. With male violence and subjugation playing a key role, setting of the story against the backdrop of imperialism thus becomes a fitting and essential parallel. The taking of land and people is equated with destructive masculine forces.
Those who are familiar with cinematic devices know that sexual symbols—particularly phallic symbols—have a long history of being equated with power, but this film presents the feminine as powerful too. When a young Hideko is learning to read, we are shown images of both penile and clitoral erections. And during their escape, Sook-hee and Hideko wield both male and female symbols when they destroy Kouzuki’s library. This is most notable when Sook-hee uses a sword to chop off the head of the snake statue that is set to guard the door. They also open the cover of an indoor pond and throw the books into the gap. Hideko splashes the books with blood-red ink and they stomp through the water.
While male heterosexuality is pervasive throughout the film, the only scenes of intercourse shown are between Hideko and Sook-hee. Their sexuality is not a destructive force, but an exploratory and creationary one. “Tender” is a word often used to describe what they want. Perhaps the most beautiful and heartwarming moment is early in their relationship but revealed late in the film. Their legs are symmetrically entwined and they are exchanging pleasure. Each reaches a hand toward the other and they grasp palms hand in a gesture used for striking deals, embarking into camaraderie, and/or a game of arm wrestling. They love not as a dominant and a submissive, but as equals. Despite the men behind the camera (Park and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung), we’re told that the gaze of this camera is female (or mostly female) which is magnified by the fact that the story was written and adapted by female writers. Twice, the camera and therefore the audience experience a literally feminine point of view. We become Hideko’s vulva about to be kissed by Sook-hee.
The love and lust between the two women is not completely innocent, however. At first, both are greedy like the men and take part in schemes that will earn them wealth, which they see as the only way out of their circumstances. This makes them trick and deceive each other. In bed, Sook-hee thinks she is teaching a virginal Hideko because she does not know about the erotic readings. Hideko also keeps the secret that she and Count Fujiwara are planning to trick Sook-hee and have her committed in Hideko’s place. Hideko’s secrecy continues in acts of voyeurism. She seems to have peep holes all over the house from which she often watches and overhears conversations. One in particular looks out into the handmaid’s bed chamber and was already in place before Sook-hee arrived. (It is hard to fault Hideko for peeping though because she essentially leads the life of a maiden trapped in a castle that is forever surrounded by dragons).
Their charming love also continues the theme of incest in what could be called mommy-longing. In their first moment of mutual sexual discovery, Hideko sucks on Sook-hee’s nipple while Sook-hee says, “I wish that I had breast milk so I could feed you.” This is the same thing she says about the abandoned babies she cared for before working as a handmaiden. She also calls Hideko her baby when giving her a bath. Since both Sook-hee and Hideko’s mothers are deceased, they frequently comfort each other when discussing this loss. These are not only intimate, but sexual moments. Simultaneously, they desire to become their mothers; Sook-hee wishes for her mother’s skills as a thief and Hideko longs for her mother’s beauty.
In the doubling of these two women as each other and as each other’s mother, their love is likewise narcissistic. At their first meeting Hideko notes, “We look alike.” Later when Hideko dresses Sook-hee in lady’s clothes, their hair is done identically. As they remove the corsets they were wearing, there is a camera shot of their backs in which they are interchangeable. Sook-hee and Hideko also objectify each other as dolls. Hideko is often seen carrying and sleeping with a doll she has had since childhood. When preparing Hideko to see Count Fujiwara one night, we hear Sook-hee think, “of all the things I’ve washed and dressed, has anything been this pretty?” and “Ladies truly are the dolls of maids. All these buttons are for my amusement.” Within their love are certain fetishes but each is mutual and mirrored back in the other.
Part of the reason why The Handmaiden was so successful with English-speaking audiences can be attributed to what progressive culture longs for today. The above mentioned erotic equality invites a welcome turn from previous dominant/submissive sexual politics. The film criticizes the subjugative nature of patriarchy and lauds homosexuality and female stories. Furthermore, the film criticizes imperialism and the act of becoming naturalized by the oppressor in a time when the Western world is more actively regretting its oppressive past. The Handmaiden also trumpets the equality of languages and cultures as the actors transition flawlessly between speaking Korean and Japanese. The film is overall a product of and a celebration of globalization. The Handmaiden was adapted from a 2002 novel called Fingersmith by the Welsh novelist Sarah Waters. Park and screenwriter Jeong Seo-kyeong transplanted Waters’ story from Victorian-era Britain to Japanese-controlled Korea. It took decades and extensive cultural exchanges and interactions to bring this story to 2016 where it found the audience that was perfectly suited for it.
Because film is a reflection as well as a suggestion for human experience it is easy to love the overall message of The Handmaiden. And those who do love it might be part of an audience free from the repression of past decades and comfortable with a spectrum of sexuality and sexual practices. This same audience has been beyond several waves of feminism and through postcolonial theory. Perhaps these viewers long for a less-patriarchal and more inclusive culture too. Film history can reveal further clues about what has created our modern predilections. There have undoubtedly been sexually suggestible acts put on screens since the invention of the screen, each image at least slightly transgressive (and thus alluring) in its time. What we want and what repels us continues to evolve and has always been defined by current social mores, values, and what we consider to be taboo. The Handmaiden is a film of the now.
Arguably, a final reason for the film’s popularity is that it is easy to find comfort in Hideko and Sook-hee’s mutual tenderness and this becomes something that gives viewers the longing to partake in and pass on. The plethora of dark and disturbing moments are balanced with joy, elation, and laughter; even the clumsy, slap-stick-like moments of the flustered Sook-hee are remarkably endearing. The relationship between the two women is heartwarming. Like all erotic thrillers with depth and breadth, The Handmaiden is not something to be watched shamefully or secretly.
With everything the film does wonderfully—technically and in story—its message is not flawless. It’s true that someone has to play the villain and that person’s characteristics will therefore be vilified. Within The Handmaiden, greed seems like an acceptable villain because money will continue to corrupt. Subjugation of women by men is likewise worthy of being vilified because collectively we shun this practice. But, as discussed earlier, these negative traits are inseparable from Kouzuki and Count Fujiwara. What becomes glaringly missing from the film then are likeable male characters, male-female camaraderie, and/or positive portrayals of male homosexuality. Beside Kouzuki and Count Fujiwara, the males in the film are silent hired guards, silent listeners at the erotic readings, the man who poses as a firefighter to rescue Sook-hee from the asylum, and Goo-gai (Dong-hwi Lee) who is seen for less than five minutes. Goo-gai works with Count Fujiwara and Sook-hee as a coin-forger and purveyor of stolen goods. As Sook-hee leaves to become the handmaiden in the opening scene, he is seen holding two babies and standing in a line with two women, which equates him with femininity. Later, we see him speaking with a stutter, becoming outraged when hearing that an uncle wants to marry his own niece, and demonstrating compassion for Hideko’s plight. However, Goo-gai is insulted, spoken over, and ignored. His traits are portrayed as weak and function to render him emasculated and powerless in order to further vilify Count Fujiwara. With the compassionate Goo-gai dismissed, this film exists in a universe absent of good men. What does this tell us? In our proliferating shift toward equality of all people, our art should be careful to criticize the acts, behaviors, and thought patterns that have previously enabled men to subjugate women. But it should not vilify men or masculinity. Perhaps an interesting question to ponder would be: How would the film be different if Sook-hee were played by a man? We would lose the beautiful mirroring of Sook-hee and Hideko and their feminine mommy-longing, but what else would change? What if Sook-hee and Hideko were both men or both non-binary, etc.? How would our impression of their sexual acts change if one or both of their genders were shifted? Is it problematic for the film that the director and cinematographer are male and that sex acts between lesbians have a history of being a part of the hetero-male fantasy?
More questions could be asked about the film’s positive (albeit incomplete) message of equality. The real-world push for equality among all people is a just, rightful, and necessary leveling of the playing field, but within a story it can impact the rising action, climax, and resolution. Stories rely on conflict. Opposing forces that repel and attract create tension, tension invites release, and this is how films work to conduct a symphony of emotions and emotional engagement in viewers in order to keep us watching. Characters need desires and obstacles to move the plot if everyone is equal in all ways this dissolves the obstacles (which is ideal only in real life). For example, the relationship between Sook-hee and Count Fujiwara versus Hideko and her uncle would be flat and uninteresting if the pairs were not from opposing socioeconomic classes. There would be no reason to embark on the con, which is the basis of the plot. The celebration of the underdog story would be lost without the background of imperial tension between Japan and Korea. It would also be unengaging to watch two people fall in love without the contrast of the predatory suitors. So how can future screenwriters and filmmakers create villains and oppositional forces in a heterogeneous group without using hierarchy based on identity (i.e. gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, etc)? One way thriller subgenres have consistently built tension outside of characterization is through temporal manipulation. The Handmaiden leaps forward and flashes back in time, which helps the film keep us on the edge of our seats. Perhaps then as we continue to embrace equality of diverse identities in our own lives, we’ll see more films portray an upswing in other types of conflict such as character versus themself, characters versus environment, and/or characters versus forces beyond human control.
Emilee Prado is an essayist and fiction writer. She holds a BA in Film Studies and an MSc in Creative Writing. Her work appears or is forthcoming in CRAFT, Hobart, Orca, Vautrin, Your Impossible Voice, and elsewhere. You can find her online at emileepradoauthor.com.