The Handmaiden: A Kinky Examination Of Power, Class, And The Lesbian Fantasy

‘Oldboy’ director Park Chan-wook transplants the Victorian erotic thriller to 1930s Korea — adding just a dash of tentacle porn

Filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s latest provocation, The Handmaiden, started the summer as the hottest commodity in South Korea, topping the Korean box office before becoming the most widely distributed film in the country’s history, with deals in 175 territories. Working from the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith, set in Victorian-era London, Park kept the juiciest essentials — including its central lesbian romance — but updated the story to be set in the same period as Japan’s imperial reign over Korea. The film opens in theaters in the United States this weekend, meaning American audiences will have a chance to judge the glamorously queer scammer delight for themselves.

Park’s film begins with an enviable hook: Sook-Hee, a young Korean grifter, agrees to help a successful scam artist swindle a wealthy Japanese heiress out of her money before the girl’s perverted uncle can marry her and take her fortune for himself. But as Sook-Hee enters the household of Lady Hideko, the film develops into a romance — albeit one doomed to remain dependent on deception so long as the two women hold on to their positions in the scheme set up by the villainous Count Fujiwara. As the film progresses and the web of lies surrounding the characters reveals itself to be more tangled than even their own expectations, Sook-Hee and Hideko must choose their allegiances in the game for power, and The Handmaiden becomes an occasion to rethink the trajectory of women’s liberation and the scope of female sexuality.

Though The Handmaiden’s plot revolves around women who desire women, the range of sexual material included pushes it beyond the boundaries of lesbian storytelling. Not to get into spoiler territory, but kinks on display include fetishized mannequins, octopi, jingle bells, live book readings, and tooth shavings — not exactly the realm of purely lesbian fantasy. Instead, The Handmaiden is a film dedicated to getting off on the creative potential of sexuality, and by grounding that open exploration of desire in a story where two women find freedom through each other. The Handmaiden offers itself up as a feminist pervert’s paradise.

As the last several weeks of this year’s election cycle have painfully reminded us, it has traditionally been the role of men to play the pervert, and women to bear the consequences. In seeking ways to protect ourselves from the abuse that has resulted in a continued passage of trauma from generation to yet another generation, feminists have rigorously developed language, practices, behaviors, and standards that protect and support a woman’s right to say no; this focus on refusal has been a crucial part of gaining public recognition from society and from our judicial system for the abuses of power that women frequently face. Mirroring the path to official recognition that women have undertaken, biological essentialism has been a crucial tool for queer communities looking to prove to the courts and to straight society that queers haven’t committed a sin that logically exempts us from equal protection under the law. In both cases, the path to legitimacy is a direct denial of choice: “No, I did not want what has become of me. I was not asking for it.” And considering that power within our society remains both patriarchal and heterosexual, admitting the limits of sexual agency has been one of the most powerful tools in articulating the necessity of equal rights to a public that might not share the same experiences.

But within feminist and queer communities, does our language for desire live up to our language for its lack? When the burden of proof for sexual abuse lies on the abused, what opportunity is there for the abused to speak of the acts, persons, and objects that are desired and desirable? What’s exciting about The Handmaiden’s hedonistic pansexuality is that its open curiosity exists alongside its acknowledgment of gendered abuse. Park uses the plastic aestheticism of film — the medium’s unconscious attachment of beauty to desire and ugliness to repulsion — to pervert what might have been the usual boundaries of a story where men are perpetrators and women are survivors. In The Handmaiden, there are good guys and bad guys, but everything the camera sees is beautiful — the performers, the fabric, the books, the torture chambers, the whip marks. Regardless of what is painful, what is debasing, or what is immoral, at least aesthetically, the audience and the characters must recognize the difference between power and oppression from within an objective garden of delights.

What is detestable about the film’s villain, Count Fujiwara, isn’t his masculinity, isn’t his body, isn’t even the act of touching him — the actor Ha Jung-woo remains as physically beautiful in The Handmaiden as he is in films where he plays the hero. Instead it’s Fujiwara’s attitude to power, his willingness to manipulate and abuse the trust of the people around him, that makes him undesirable. Hideko’s pervert captor, Uncle Kouzuki, is repulsive, but the camera observes his objectophile fetishes with giddy delight, and the spectacle of his perversity is shared as part of the pleasure of the film. Imagining what the use could be for that freaky-ass octopus is a turn-on, goddamn it, and though Hideko and Sook-Hee never waver in their commitment to each other, The Handmaiden also doesn’t exempt them from the imaginative perversity the film grants its immoral male characters. Actress Kim Min-hee leaves room for Hideko to enjoy her role as an oratory dominatrix, even as she despises the circumstances that landed her there. Likewise, Sook-Hee’s pleasure in theft and deception feeds her desire for Hideko, at least initially.

In a rebuttal to nearly two decades of “born this way” rhetoric, The Handmaiden presents commitment to queer love not as sexual necessity but as an active choice in favor of liberation. Opportunities for pleasure are numerous — these characters are not condemned by genetics to take pleasure in only one pursuit — but only in the pursuit of their desire for each other is there promise for a life that would be worth living.