The Handmaiden: Sapphic mystery goes rogue

Crossing, double-crossing, triple-crossing. Failed heists, successful heists, twists. Lesbian sex scenes that reclaim symbols of patriarchy; lead characters defying expectations of womanhood and class in the repressive Japanese-occupied Korea; ripples and reprecussions of political and cultural history. This film has it all. And so much more.

Then, just when you think you know what’s going on, your whole reality is turned on its head. 

Twice.

The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook, 2016) is a South Korean erotic thriller, loosely adapted from the 2002 Victorian-set novel Fingersmith by Sarah Walters. The film, set in Japanese occupied Korea of the early 20th century, tells the story of an attempted heist over the rich Lady Hideko by a con-man going by “Count Fujiwara”. Trying to seduce and marry the Lady Hideko and then commit her to a madhouse so he can take her fortune, he employs the help of pickpocket Sook-hee to help with the plan. However, when Sook-hee and Hideko start to fall for each other, said plan begins to unfurl.

Top Tip: The film is split into three parts, so you can tackle them one at a time if 2 hours and 25 minutes intimidates you.


Dual reality

The film is told through two different perspectives: part 1, Sook-hee’s; part 2, Hideko’s. In both, we meet the women as young girls, learning how their lives brought them into this complicated situation. The bulk of these two first parts essentially tells the same story but from their two different perspectives. As repetitive as this might seem, the genius of Park Chan-Wook (writer, producer and director) makes this into both an intriguing narrative device and an invasive exploration into the mixing of different people’s realities and truths in the construction of story and history.

A few scenes are played out in both the first two parts. Alternative camera angles, subtle discrepancies in dialogue and shorter and longer cuts are all implanted: both to reflect the women’s differing perspectives, and to continue unravelling details of the story as we know it. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the main sex scene between Sook-hee and Hideko.

Britney Line Time: But mama, I’m in love with a criminal / And this type of love isn’t rational, it’s physical

Pertinently, Hideko’s version of events (or at least that which we are privy to as a viewer) begins towards the point where Sook-hee’s ends: only together do they make a complete whole. Sook-hee’s, which comes first, is less explicit than Hideko’s: the former’s focus being largely on a kiss, the latter’s being on the sexual act itself ー though it must be said that both do have both romantic and erotic elements. Still, camera angles and sheets cleverly obscure body parts in Sook-hee’s version, only for all to be revealed (as much as is possible in a 16+) in Hideko’s. This is reflected in the music: though romantic in both, Hideko’s soundtrack has a faster tempo and higher sonic intensity.

Perhaps the different levels of explicitness reflect the women’s levels of innocence: Sook-hee is presumably younger, and certainly less knowledgable about sex (despite what Hideko may claim). Though it may be simpler than that still; perhaps Chan-Wook, as a male filmmaker directing a lesbian sex scene, is trying to shirk criticism: the scene, both versions contained within the film, is thus neither too prudish nor too pornographic.

Soundtrack Stand Out: The Footsteps of My Dear Love, Gain & Minseo

Both sequences are extremely sensual. As was pointed out by this anonymous member of a queer film forum, the sensuality of Sook-hee’s desire is highlighted to differentiate her in the eyes of Hideko from older male admirers: while the men only desire her visually, Sook-hee desires her with all her bsenses. Taste, for example, is emphasised in their first kiss, the focus of Sook-hee’s perspective. Sook-hee licks a lollipop, bringing her mouth to Hideko’s. Her voice-over then enters: “Why does the candy taste different? The bitter turned sour, the sour turned sweet, the sweet turned savory.” The taste of Hideko’s lips transforms Sook-hee perception of an accepted fact, showing the depth of her desire even at this early stage.

Sook-hee and Hideko kiss for the first time

The action shared between the two sequences is shown from different camera angles, giving us a more complete picture. Both contain shots showing the women from above (albeit at different moments), the camera then rotating, portraying a sense of wholeness, completeness and symmetry. As discussed, both versions of the scene show great passion, and, combining this with the camera work gives us the sense that they have been searching their whole lives, never quite knowing that what they had been searching for was this until now. This idea is all too familiar to queer people during formative sexual encounters. The final shot of Hideko’s perspective, thus the final shot we see of this scene, is of the two women holding hands while scissoring (this comes off as a little male gaze-y, but it’s important to know that only female camera operators were present for this scene). Intertwined in a kind of erotic yin yang, once again, we return to the motif of symmetry. Together, they reflect each other and become one, their blossoming love reflected by a vase of flowering lillies present on the nightstand.

The women’s first sexual encounter, from Part 2: Hideko’s perspective

Sonically, the scene ends, in both cases, with a moan from one of the two women that lingers faintly into the start of the next scene. In the case of Sook-hee’s perspective, it is Hideko’s moan that we hear to finish; and vice versa. This is the perfect example of how Chan-Wook’s filmmaking reflects the two women’s memories, succinctly and subtly showing us their mutual desire: the thing that each woman remembers about this formative sexual encounter is, naturally, the other.


Defying expectations and symbols

To describe The Handmaiden as simply an erotic thriller is, to my mind, to undersell it. It is also a mystery, a heist film, a queer romance, and echoes of countless other labels. Though the trailer and associated marketing is very effective, there is an impressive amount of genre-hopping and -melding left untouched therein.

In terms of plot, this film almost never did what I was expecting it to do, and each twist surprised me as much as the last. You don’t get to see what’s really going on, or rather what’s really been going on, until about two thirds of the way through. The drama keeps you invested, and mood and emotion fly by faster than you can say “how didn’t I see that coming?”. As the story builds, clues are planted: Part 1 may hint at a plot point which is explored more thoroughly when revisiting that same moment or location in Part 2.

And yet, it is a different kind of defiance which I find myself lingering on in the days following my first viewing of The Handmaiden. It is clear that gender and class play a heavy role in the construction of this society we’re seeing, and its societal norms ー even inside an isolated mansion. It is refreshing, and perhaps more realistic, to see these be just as significant obstacles in the characters’ lives than sexuality ー if not, indeed, more so.

Biggest Gay Mood: Being committed to a madhouse in the early 20th Century

Sook-hee and Hideko find small ways to use their relationship with one another (that is, a humble maid and a Lady of high rank) to defy expectations of both class and gender. When they first meet, Hideko first exposes their class difference to Sook-hee and then perverts them.

First, she shows Sook-hee her extensive wealth: cupboards upon drawers of dresses, shoes, gloves, jewels. And yet, as she admits, she is unhappy. She has never left the grounds of her uncle’s mansion and is only able to mask the sorrow of her isolation with material riches: “when you wear new shoes, every well-trodden path seems fresh.”

A short while later, Hideko disrupts this class difference by dressing Sook-hee up in a corset, dress and white gloves: symbols of purity, cleanliness and womanhood which highlight their class difference. By necessity, they help each other get out of these clothes, and as a Lady in white gloves undoes the corset she has lent to her maid, norms of class, gender and sexuality are defiled in this intimate act of undress. Just before this, Lady Hideko runs a gloved finger down Sook-hee’s spine, tantalising her and increasing the erotic tension between them,

Hideko undoes the corset she lent to Sook-hee

This is but a small peek into the abundant symbolism of The Handmaiden, which I explore more thoroughly in a sequence analysis of one of the film’s later scenes ー similar to the one I did of Call Me By Your Name’s final scene. In the sequence analysis, I delve into one metaphor-rich scene during which the two women destroy a library together. This does (essentially) contain spoilers, so watch The Handmaiden first if you think you’ll want to dive into that!


Surroundings steeped in history

Watching The Handmaiden, you get a true sense that the world in which the film exists exists because of its history. It is implied and later revealed that the uncle, Korean by birth, was given the house as a reward for collaborating with the Japanese during the early stages of occupation. The action we see is playing out because of the repercussions of this occupation. I knew nothing about this political history before watching the film, but I felt the cultural history seeping through the screen.

Hideko and Sook-hee explore the mansion’s extensive grounds

Outside the large but repressive mansion are extensive grounds which make for beautiful cinematography. The beauty is almost excessive: wandering paths, cherry blossoms and fountains all have a distinctly Japanese style ー a cultural aspiration for the Korea-betraying uncle at the time, of course. The beauty of the landscape contrasts against Hideko’s deep unhappiness: for example, we find out that the beautiful cherry tree in the garden is where her aunt (and only friend) was found hanged when Hideko was a child. Hideko believes that her uncle refused to remove the cherry tree afterwards because it was too valuable.

The Handmaiden is both a celebration and a condemning of the cultural history within which it exists. In a world of beautiful gardens and extensive riches, the film moves far beyond its origins: it implants deeper questions around themes of truth, of reality, of gender and sexuality into a setting which would not expect them. Rather than detracting from the backdrop, these aspects bind the very fabric of The Handmaiden together, lifting it to new and implausible heights. It is, at once, a passionate thriller, an epic and a masterpiece; then, just when you think it’s all over, it’s only just beginning.

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