Sequence Analysis: The Handmaiden, destroy the library

“The daughter of a legendary thief, who sewed winter coats out of stolen purses. Herself a thief, pickpocket, swindler. The saviour who came to tear my life apart. My Tamako, my Sook-Hee.”

So narrates Lady Hideko over perhaps the most celebrated scene of Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden (2016). In the emotional and symbolic climax of this two-and-a-half hour Korean epic, Sook-Hee and Hideko, class enemies turned lovers, destroy a library together, shouting a symbolic fuck you to the patriarchy in the process. In order to understand the full impact of this action for characters and spectators alike, we must first briefly circle back and work out how we got here.

Sook-Hee moves determinedly forward while Hideko’s thoughts recite her praises

This is your official spoiler warning. You can go back and read last week’s full review if you wish to experience a deep dive without ruining the unexpected twists.

Now we’ve got that out the way: a quick recap.

When Sook-Hee agreed to be employed as Lady Hideko’s maid to help a con man marry the Lady and steal her fortune, I’m sure she didn’t anticipate the two women falling in love. After a series of crossings and double-crossings, it is apparent by the scene in question (just before 2 hours in) that Hideko and Sook-Hee are finally in it together.

At the start of Part Two (the film is split into three), we learn that Hideko is forced by her Uncle Kouzuki to read out violent erotic fiction in front of dirty, rich men; Kouzuki uses this lure to auction the books, many of which are forgeries, for high prices. More disturbing still, it turns out that he has been training her for this since she was a child; this is why she has always hated reading Japanese.

Hideko reading the erotic fiction

To add even more flames to the perverted fire, we see Kouzuki admitting to Hideko that her aunt did not kill herself; he shows Hideko the basement where he tortured and killed her, threatening the same treatment if she steps out of line. Finally, there is an undercurrent of knowledge throughout the film that Uncle Kouzuki wishes to eventually marry his niece. In essence, Kouzuki has been abusing Hideko her whole life ー a life he has full control over.

Kouzuki has gone away for a week on business, leaving the two girls alone (except for staff) in the mansion. In my chosen scene, Hideko takes Sook-Hee to see the library where she reads the erotic fiction ー a space forbidden to Sook-Hee until now ー and shows her one of the books. When Sook-Hee, previously aware that Hideko hates reading Japanese but unsure why, comes to a full realisation, she starts tearing up the book. Soon, the two of them, led by Sook-Hee, set about destroying Kouzuki’s entire collection of sexist, perverted literature.

Music enters the scene at the very moment Sook-Hee rips the first page. Though the beat is fast-paced and tense, the tune is playful, exciting; it signals that this is to be a joyous moment, the true beginning of the two women’s wonderful journey together. As cameras follow Sook-Hee around the library, Hideko trailing her in tearful awe, we whirl through two and a half minutes of rich symbolism and calculated camerawork as two brave women destroy their constructed past in order to rewrite their future.

Hideko looks on in timid admiration

The books in this scene represent an accepted wisdom: of what women are or should be, of what sex is or should be, of what women’s roles in society are or should be. In previous scenes we have seen Hideko reading these books: the depictions of sex are violent and graphic, showing women as weak and submissive beings that “feel the greatest pleasure when taken by force.” Here, in the destruction of these writings and drawings, Sook-Hee and Hideko use their own force, their own violence, in an act of revenge that is long overdue.

One shot shows a knife tearing through a scroll towards the camera, addressing the audience directly when destroying the very canvas upon which accepted knowledge is written: a violent carving of a new history. This destruction of written-down, apparent truths also echoes a wider theme within the film, one surrounding the warping of reality, multiple truths and multiple histories.

The knife tears violently towards the camera, confronting the audience

Cameras destabilise as they follow Sook-Hee, and with her Hideko, around the library. This at times chaotic filming style matches Sook-Hee’s manic energy, also reflecting the destabilisation of the narrative that they seek to destroy. At times, it seems like the camera can barely keep up with them.

Around halfway through the sequence, they reach a large glass display case, whose glass Sook-Hee shows no hesitation in smashing. This is the point at which Hideko finally decides to join in. As Sook-Hee upends the glass box, reminiscent of a museum display case, the camera performs a familiar routine: first, we see the two women from above, and then the image slowly rotates. This camera movement is identical to a shot from earlier in the film, seen during the pair’s first sexual encounter. We understand that this is an equally intimate moment between Hideko and Sook-Hee, also reflecting the same atmosphere of symmetry and wholeness: in this act, they are one, united. Exhibited on screen is a literal twisting of an established narrative.

Sook-Hee destroys the display case

The women push piles of books into a pool of water and throw on red ink. The contrast of bright red ink against the musty brown paper echoes of violence, rupture, bloodshed ー but also, lust. It is Hideko who throws the ink here; with Sook-Hee she has reclaimed a sense of sexuality previously corrupted and put upon her by force. Now it is her turn to take control.

Hideko throws ink on the books

To finish, we can return to our opening quote, this time in more context. Hideko reads her diarised narration non-diegetically: a praising of Sook-Hee, her saviour, who is approaching the porcelain snake which guards the library’s entrance. Carrying a metal stick in one hand, she holds it up to this phallic symbol of patriarchal power, an erect representation of intrusive and venomous manhood. As she brings the metal down, the snake ー along with written legacies of female oppression ー is smashed; it is the epitome of violent feminist retribution.

Sook-Hee smashes the snake

Watch the full scene below:

Read my full review here.

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