A psychological thriller ‘The Handmaiden’ from South Korea adapted from a Sarah Waters novel.
Award-winning novelist Sarah Waters first caught the attention of literary lesbians with Tipping the Velvet, a work of historical fiction that found and traced the deeply embedded lesbian veins of Victorian England. Fingersmith, her third novel, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and while we could call it a lesbian novel, being both written by and about lesbians, it is also a work greatly admired by men.
It was ranked by David Bowie as one of his top 100 books, and South Korean film director Park Chan-wook was inspired by its visceral scenes (one in particular, where the “maid” Sue grinds down one of her mistress’s teeth using a thimble), and felt compelled to make it into his next movie, The Handmaiden.
According to an interview with The Guardian Park didn’t know the BBC adaptation existed, and when he found out, he resolved to transplant it from its British soil to 1930s Japan—a period which had its own Victorian-type constraints via a final flourishing of imperialist power.
At that time, Korea—like much of the region—was challenged by or under Japanese imperialist rule, and while Japan looked down upon Korea, it looked enviously to the West. In The Handmaiden, Park cleverly maps those master-servant tensions onto an Asian colonial context to stunning effect.
While Sarah Waters was thrilled with the 2005 adaptation by the BBC, it’s not known what she thinks of Park’s cinematic outing. In Waters’ story, the heroine Sue is a female pickpocket raised by a Dickensian gang of thieves; she collaborates with a male con man, Gentleman, to seduce a wealthy heiress in her remote country estate, elope with her and abscond with her fortune after committing her to a madhouse.
When Sue falls in love with her mistress she nevertheless goes through with the plot—and that’s just Part One. Many twists and turns follow in the remaining two parts. In this novel, as in others by Waters, dramatic suspense is provided by the psychological atmosphere of the Gothic novel, the “cliffhanger” device favored by early serials, the duplicity of language, especially the argot of the criminal underclass, and the ever-present threat of the gallows to raise the stakes.
In adapting this work to the screen, director Park is mostly faithful to the source material or finds the cultural equivalent—but it is mostly in the areas of sex and violence that he makes his boldest departures.
Many lesbians take issue with men who make movies about lesbians: Some films are embraced, like Bound, others are rejected, like Blue Is the Warmest Color. The criteria seems to be not so much aesthetic as ethical—the stereotyping of lesbians in film and TV has a spillover effect into the culture at large, contributing to the “pornification” of the lesbian identity, and the invisibility of lesbians in everything from politics to marketing.
While it’s important to distinguish film from real life, and to give a good film its due even if it’s not a poster statement for our community, lesbians are rightly wary of films that appear to endorse lesbian sexuality while objectifying us through the “male gaze.” Can a film about lesbians, directed by a man, subvert sexist ways of seeing and come to grips with what women see when they look at and desire each other? I think so.
And so, to The Handmaiden, which has been transformed from a lesbian novel and fairly sedate TV drama into an erotic thriller screened internationally, and which is thought to be the first mainstream Korean film with lesbian characters at the centre. Indeed, it’s a beautiful film of quality and cleverness.
Park is a director’s director (Quentin Tarantino is a fan) who uses breathtaking cinematography and makes interesting stylistic choices; for example an establishing shot of Lady Hideko’s estate, which is half traditional Japanese pavilion and half Victorian manse—a visual clue to the themes of duplicity and doubleness.
How easily appearances can deceive and—when manipulated—destabilize power structures. “Dressed up, you look like a lady too,” says Hideko to her maid Sook-hee.
The female leads are the real pleasure in this film; their acting is genuine and excellent. The actress and former model Kim Min-hee, who is one of South Korea’s A-listers and lately in the tabloids for her scandalous affair with a married male director, is outstanding as Lady Hideko.
She displays a unique ability to transform her unusually beautiful facial features from catatonic blankness into startling passion, sometimes within the same shot. I especially enjoyed Kim Tae-ri in her debut performance as Sook-hee, the pickpocket Korean maid. She is completely tender and present in her scenes with Hideko, and nails the emotional progression of falling in love with her mistress through their shared intimacies and—in spite of their different status—shared oppression at the hands of men.
The question is whether or not lesbian viewers will find the eroticism between them fetishistic. Hideoko is babyish and sucking on a lollipop before Sook-hee files her tooth down in the aforementioned scene of oral digital penetration —while in the bathtub! The scene had reviewers feeling quite titillated after its premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and I would feel voyeuristic watching it if it wasn’t for the absolute commitment of the lead actresses.
Film theorist Christian Metz wrote about cinema as fetish, “what is cinema if not a machine that brings us closer to what we dream of and desire?” The question is: who is really doing the dreaming and the desiring? Who controls visual pleasure?
In the case of The Handmaiden, which is enjoying mainstream success, fans of Fingersmith should take into account that, in addition to a transfer from Occidental to Oriental, there is the auteurism of Park; the Dickensian bleakness and tenderness of Fingersmith have been replaced by a bloodthirsty, graphic bent, and the female roles’ ritualized subservience reflects Park’s culture—Korean gender roles under Confucianism created an oppression of women possibly even worse than in Victorian England.
And so the film’s title goes from “Fingersmith,” with its connotations of know-how and agency, to “Handmaiden,” which suggests powerlessness. And yet there is some irony in this: while maid and mistress are at least a social class apart, each struggles with their designated duties, and they ‘meet’ through their hands.
The only real punishment of hands and their clever little digits in this film happens man-to-man. It’s a film in which the male characters are quite repulsive, including the “Gentleman” character, the slippery and sinister Count Fujiwara (played by Ha Jung-woo) who plans to marry Hideko, and Hideko’s uncle who is a porn addict, out of touch with reality, while the women around him have all the sex, without the involvement of males.
Some critics just don’t know how to write about lesbians on screen unless the lesbian characters suffer and die; some mainstream reviewers of this film have crafted headlines such as “lurid lesbian potboiler” and “sexy and depraved lesbian revenge story.” I didn’t quite see the film in those terms.
The sensual delight and bliss Sook-hee expresses at physical intimacy with her mistress—when she massages her feet with genuine dedication, when she goes down between her thighs and thrills at the beauty she beholds—these scenes don’t feel excessive or fetishistic to me. Park’s return to his signature excessive violence, yes; his grotesque view of masculinity, sure. But girls who break the rules and get each other, Japanese sex toys and all? Not in the least.