The Handmaiden: Male Gaze Dressed Up as Art?

Directed by Park Chan-wook
CJ Entertainment, 145 minutes (in Korean and Japanese with subtitles)
Not rated (graphic sex, S & M, violence)
* *

This film has made quite a few top films of 2016 lists. It won’t make mine. This is a male gaze film stylishly dressed and undressed to disguise the fact that it’s actually just porn with a bigger budget.

It has an intriguing concept: take Welsh author’s Sarah Waters’ bodice-ripper Fingersmith and replace her Victorian England setting with that of Korea under World War II Japanese occupation. This was an interesting and traumatic time in Korean history. Korea was not yet an industrial powerhouse and many of its better-heeled citizens saw it as a backwater, with Japan holding allure analogous to the fascination that Paris might hold for a remote Piedmont count. Some Koreans sought to “pass” as Japanese; others surrounded themselves with ostentatious opulence. Into the second category place Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), who resides in a three-building complex that's a graft of an English country estate, a traditional Japanese house, and an annex with a sprawling library. The black-tongued Kouzuki licks his pen and rules the roost, but most of the money is actually that of his niece Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) whom he holds a veritable prisoner, as he had her aunt (Moon So-ri) before her. Because she cannot leave the grounds, young Lady Hideko has the body of a voluptuous woman but the mind, naiveté, and doll-clutching habits of a child. Maybe.

Enter a Korean con man (Ha Jung-woo) posing as Count Fujiwara of Japan. He’s really the head of a bandit’s roost of pickpockets and thieves, but he has a grand scheme: plant one of his minions in Lady Hideko’s household as her handmaiden, have her sing the count’s praises, and pave the way for his wooing—the ultimate plan being to marry Hideko before her uncle does, drive her insane, send her to an asylum, gain control of her fortune, and pay off his minion. How very, very Victorian! Sook-hee (Kim Hae-sook) is chosen and she is soon ensconced in the household as Tamako. But the Count didn’t plan on her seducing Hideko. Or did he?

The film is divided into three parts, the first being the set up, the second delving more into the back story and the revelation that Kouzouki’s library is full of erotic books and that he stages periodic dramatic readings from them for the benefit of randy Korean aristocrats. Part three is the reveal and conclusion. It’s essentially a tease as to whether we are watching a grift, a double cross, a triple cross, or just kinky debauchery. 

Some of this holds promise. The sets are rich, the colors are eye-popping vivid, the narrative closely parallels Waters’ novel, and I’m told that the director and actors are highly regarded in South Korea. But shall we be honest here? This film is about two beautiful women getting naked and having very graphic sex with each other. Can we not pretend that this is a psychological thriller and just call it a high-class male masturbatory fantasy? Mine is not an anti-porn crusade. It’s really up to you to determine where to draw the line between sexuality and exploitation, but it is telling that it’s mostly (but not entirely) male reviewers singing the praises of The Handmaiden. But allow me to be righteous on this point: I object to pure voyeurism pretending to be art. I’m open to the idea that the two can be complementary, but Gustave Courbet this isn’t!

Rob Weir           

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