IF YOU WALK into The Handmaiden as I did, naïvely believing it to be a period drama, for the first 30 minutes you will be in turns perplexed and abashed. What’s wrong with me, I wondered; surely, not everything always reminds me of sex? Half an hour and an onscreen lesbian orgy later, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Much like Park Chan-wook’s earlier films Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005), and Thirst (2009), The Handmaiden exploits the presumption of innocence in others, cannily redistributing knowledge and guilt throughout the film’s cascade of kinks and crimes. This cognitive switch from presumed innocence to knowing complicity is paradigmatic for Park, and he stages it ever more deftly with each film he makes. To find our supposed perversity mirrored by someone else — whose self-knowledge turns out to match, and even exceed, our own refinement — is, in Park’s films, a source of both respite and terror. Respite, because this other person is much less vulnerable to our secret desires than we’d patronizingly assumed; and terror, because this person can see through us more easily than we would wish, giving our postures of sophistication an indelible, comic air.
The Handmaiden is based on Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, whose plot Park moves from Victorian England to early 20th-century Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Made of three parts, it starts in a picaresque mode from the perspective of the Korean pickpocket Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri). Sook-Hee’s conman friend (Ha Jung-woo), who calls himself Count Fujiwara, asks her to help him seduce a Japanese heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to trick her out of her inheritance. Sook-Hee eagerly agrees, assuming the position of Hideko’s handmaiden, then falters as she falls in love with her perpetually dazed, virginal-seeming employer. Part two, which starts from Hideko’s perspective, reveals that her virginity is merely technical: her uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong), a collector of pornographic art and literature, has abused her since childhood, making her read erotic stories, and sometimes also reenact them, for him and his friends. Hideko originally plans on eloping with the conman count, whose intentions she sees through, and to use Sook-Hee as a decoy. But then she, too, is moved by Sook-Hee’s earnestness and is attracted to her. After the two confess their love to each other in a dramatic night scene, they make a plan to trick Hideko’s uncle and the fake count alike. Part three, which gives us access to all of these characters through something like free indirect discourse, follows Sook-Hee’s and Hideko’s successful elopement and the revenge that the men they leave behind wreak on each other in angry desperation.
In combining these conflicting perspectives, Park’s film cycles through diverse tropes of erotic narratives, briefly pinning each for display like a butterfly. It does so with an entomological commitment that makes the viewer realize, as if for the first time, how many such tropes she can name — and with a flourish that continually undercuts any particular narrative’s gravitas. The men in The Handmaiden are on a mission to relive Pasolini’s Salò — or, barring that, at least a solid Last Tango in Paris. The women think that they are trapped in Dangerous Liaisons, which they urgently strive to remake as Bound. In its dizzying shifts among these options, The Handmaiden also frequently veers toward Blue Is the Warmest Color, with its unnerving ambiguity about whose gaze — a woman’s or a man’s, a voyeur’s or a lover’s — we are asked to identify with at each turn.
These sexual intertexts are as much philosophical as they are filmic: amid its shifts of genre and trope, The Handmaiden looks for ties between the violently objectifying desires of its male characters, and the sexual self-discoveries made by the two represented women. The film’s emphasis on the meticulous discipline required for sexual satisfaction — elaborate corsets, bathing rituals, and sex toys — derives from Sade. At the same time, the individualism with which it connects sexual pleasure to self-knowledge and the pursuit of personal happiness tints it with nothing less than liberal humanism. Surreally juxtaposing these two concepts of sexual experience, The Handmaiden composes itself into a dreamlike, comic melodrama about the selfishness of pleasure and the astonishing, inalienable independence it gives even to people who seem completely subjugated to others. It also teasingly implies that these two notions of sexual experience are, in the end, more complementary than one might wish.
Critics have described The Handmaiden as Park’s first attempt at realism. That’s partly right — at least compared to his previous films, which have featured vampires, extremely successful hypnosis, and impossibly neoliberal private prisons in which a person can pay to imprison his enemies. But Park applies to his new theme a similarly fantasy-driven sensitivity and lens. The Handmaiden depends on miracles: the miracles of erudition and the equally miraculous autonomy of a person’s desires and pleasures. In Oldboy, an imprisoned man shadowboxes for 15 years and eventually turns himself into a master fighter. The Handmaiden is animated by a similar dream of abstract, easily recontextualized learning, though the object of study here is not fighting, but sex. On the one hand, it depicts sex as something that requires artifice and extended instruction; on the other, it insists that such instruction cannot control or constrain the uses to which such carefully acquired skills will be put.
“You’re a natural,” Sook-Hee thus exclaims as Hideko scissors her expertly — but, as we soon find out, Hideko’s expertise is anything but naturally acquired. Her uncle trained and tortured her for years to mold her into a sublimely frigid lector of pornographic novels. Now, she is merely putting into practice an act about which she has been reading lurid advice literature since the age of 10. (Lesbians, roll your eyes here — or take heart?) Sook-Hee does not seem to have been with a woman previously, either, but she, too, has had easily transposable training: she is a former pickpocket with nimble fingers and a connoisseur’s eye for family jewels — which, in case viewers didn’t immediately get the pun, is what the stories that Hideko reads call genitalia. With almost absurd individualist optimism, this sex scene further suggests that learned skills — no matter how repressive their original context — can always be repurposed for personal pleasure. Selfless submissiveness, Park fantasizes, is the one quality we can never successfully be taught. Nor can we ever be prevented from recycling for our personal satisfaction any forms of expression that we have acquired from others.
Such disjunctures between the pleasures that characters seek and the skills to which they apply their learning lend each gesture they make and each phrase they utter an amoral, affectively disconnected air. There’s nothing intrinsic in anything we learn to do, the film suggests, that guarantees the purpose to which this knowledge will be put. To stress this point, The Handmaiden explicitly repeats each skill, gesture, and phrase in many contexts and with many potential meanings. Both on the verbal and on the visual level, the film is full of ritualistic or quasi-ritualistic repetition. Some of these repetitions are exact: a phrase a character utters is repeated by another in a different conversation. For instance, early on, Hideko confesses to Sook-Hee the fear that her future lover will find her frigid; we later learn that she repeats that phrase verbatim from an offhand, cynical comment that the count made to her uncle after a pornographic séance. At other times, a symbolically weighted sign is schizophrenically multiplied all over the screen: when Hideko supposedly loses her virginity to the count, and Sook-Hee finds a bright red stain on her white bed sheet, she is wearing an equally white dress printed with blood-red poppies.
In other, more obviously ironic repetitions, Park’s characters literalize the content they are reiterating: for instance, the sex-obsessed Kouzuki hides in his basement a live octopus much like the one depicted in Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. In a moment of sly humor, after we hear a pornographic narrative that ends in a description of a “money shot,” we soon see Count Fujiwara lying flat on his back, covered in actual banknotes. Such literalizing repetitions even compose themselves into comically obvious allegories: as when Hideko’s loveless elopement with the count is associated with the plains of Vladivostok, and the lesbian romance for which she opts instead involves a southbound cruise to Shanghai.
As the preceding three examples suggest most strongly, these repetitions often hover between acts of naïve imitation and purposeful, willful transposition. Park’s characters alternately — or simultaneously — treat the social and physical codes around them with confident instrumentalism, and with a childlike faith in their universal, endlessly decontextualizable efficacy. Kouzuki’s living octopus, for instance, represents both a pinnacle of his decadence and a point at which this connoisseur seems no longer able to tell apart life and art: the Americanist equivalent of this act of aesthetic fandom would be a Moby-Dick aficionado buying a whale. This naïve faith makes their desires seem perversely omnivorous: like perfect Freudian patients, they take pleasure not only from the original sexual acts they desire, but from any of these acts’ permutations and repetitions, on any given symbolic or material level. Expanding as well as mocking Sade’s sexual combinatorics, such scenes build under their stern Enlightenment rationality a basement for the unconscious. They represent such sexual pursuits as driven less by a thirst for empirical self-knowledge, than by the half-blind, solipsistic optimism to which sexual pleasure reduces us, to the point that in everything around us we see only its potential erotic triggers or symbols.
In what might be the single most striking instance of such amoral, ambiguous satisfaction, the closing scene of The Handmaiden finds the two protagonists in their cabin on their Shanghai-bound cruise ship. Hideko pulls four spherical bells out of a small sack that she brought with her. The camera zeroes in on the bells, and the viewer instantly knows what she will do with them. Only a few scenes earlier, during the last obscene soiree in which she was forced to participate, she’d read out to her uncle and his guests a story about women who achieve simultaneous pleasure by pushing such bells, two each, into each other’s vaginas. Reenacting this story, the two women’s bodies bend toward each other in perfect symmetry. As they reach orgasm (simultaneously, of course), their mutually mirroring bodies echo the Edo-style painting that accompanied the original narrative that Hideko read. The two women appear to have, at once, recuperated this practice from the demeaning context in which Hideko encountered it, and staged for us as their viewers the exact kind of pornographic spectacle in which they no longer wanted to participate.
In scenes such as these, the film at once invites and mocks the questions that tied the viewers of Blue Is the Warmest Color in knots: for whom are these sex scenes intended, and from whose perspective are they being recorded? But such questions lose their feminist edge in the film’s recurrent, ironic suggestions that one must never underestimate the skill and energy with which these women have molded their settings to satisfy their own inward wants. The Handmaiden nurtures fantasies of a femininity that is both sexual and motherly, and that we are incapable of shocking with our needs. Since we’re allowed to watch, this reasoning goes, it’s more likely than not that the person we’re watching intended us to do so, having lost her concern for any consequences beyond her own exhibitionist frisson. In this regard, Park’s film echoes the post-decadent feminism of the French second wave, and especially of Hélène Cixous’s “Laughter of the Medusa.” Cixous’s famous essay mocks men for skirting female genitalia as if they would turn them to stone. The Handmaiden similarly dissociates itself from its represented misogyny by showing how terrified its men are by the sheer notion of women’s indifference to them in the midst of their own desires — and of how unabashed these women are, by contrast, to take up any of these men’s tools of submission to pleasure themselves.
To expect something more from The Handmaiden — more politics, say, or a more plausible (perhaps not so happy) ending — would be to take this film as serious and as realistic, which it isn’t. The film’s light, mocking tone does have a utopian point to it, of course: when pursued with consequence, it suggests that any person’s desires can not only distort her sense of the outer world, but actively change this world in her own image. The film’s occasional scenes of mutual trust and recognition amid these conflicting solipsisms do also, consequently, bear considerable pathos: in this world of inflexible, if not always expressed, inward desires, the possibility of sustained, reciprocal love of the kind Sook-Hee and Hideko find is nothing short of a miracle. But in the end, Park’s film can perhaps best be read as a Rorschach test in which we recognize the suddenly familiar shapes of where we begin, and cease, to see a certain pleasure as perverse or guileless, necessary or laughable; a test in which our own ability to recognize the limits of what we desire, and to make room amid these limits for the surrounding world, is repeatedly called into question. As such a test, through which Park masterfully unsettles both our prudishness and our sophistication, The Handmaiden proves delightfully witty.
Marta Figlerowicz is an assistant professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale and a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. Her writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in n+1, Boston Review, Post45 (Contemporaries), Film Quarterly, and elsewhere.