“[F]rom the standpoint of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the hope is that desires for the ‘primitive’ or fantasies about the Other can be continually exploited, and that such exploitation will occur in a manner that reinscribes and maintains the status quo.” – bell hooks, Eating the Other, 1992
Park Chanwook’s latest masterpiece The Handmaiden is a wonderfully entrancing, seductive thriller set in 1930s Korea, without any white persons appearing to save the day or infiltrating the plot. The film has received resounding praise from critics and audiences alike, proving once and for all that despite having no literal projection of themselves within the storyline, white audiences can find an all-Asian movie both entertaining and valuable. The film’s lucrative success condemns any excuses for whitewashing in order to appeal to Western audiences, which was most recently used by Chinese director Zhang Yimou in his film The Great Wall.
With respect to its accomplishments, however, the film’s exposure to an international audience should be analyzed in its own regard as a form of contact with the Other. As it accumulates notoriety abroad, there has been little discussion of the film’s impact on existing, skewed perceptions of Asian bodies. Specifically, no one has addressed the questions: How does the film contribute to yellow fever, Asian fetish, and the continued powerlessness of Asian women over their own image? Although Asian audiences everywhere hunger for a fresh representation of their bodies by an Asian director, what are the limitations of this director’s heteromasculine gaze?
Yellow femme bodies have a long documented history of existing in the Western public imagination as overly eroticized vessels for straight male pleasure, and, having not been completely normalized, queer relationships are perceived to be more explicit than heterosexual relationships by default. Since The Handmaiden falls within both of these categories, its portrayal of an East Asian lesbian relationship for kicks and giggles capitalizes on the public’s already wetted, expectant fantasies for this situation. The forceful hand of Western exoticization is exemplified by the extreme dichotomy between each country’s different marketing for the film: the Korean trailer sells a silly romantic comedy, while United States distributor Amazon focuses almost exclusively on the fleshy nakedness of the actors, splicing together the most shocking moments in rapid succession to promise a sexually stimulating cabinet of horrors. This is not to say that the international trailer is an outright lie, but it leads one to wonder about the social repercussions of the sudden hypervisibility in the United States of a uniquely Korean film that eroticizes a queer relationship.
As a word of warning, this review will contain spoilers for sake of reaching a level of depth in analysis that many critics have not. However, by now, it’s no secret that Lady Hideko (Kim Minhee) and her new maid Sookhee (Kim Taeri) realize their romantic affection for each other early on. Although this isn’t the type of movie that should necessarily be expected to push a social agenda, it is important to see the film for what it really is: Park disguises a menagerie of tired media tropes with visual splendor, mind-bending plot twists, and atypically licentious sex scenes. In the context of an American audience looking for a cheap thrill and exotic experience, this movie fits the bill. Porcelain-skinned dolls in beautiful clothing? Check. Outrageously creative torture porn? Check. Lusciously saturated nature shots of a foreign land? Check. The film appeals to viewers’ yearning for something novel and decadent–like the pink French creme puff that Hideko pokes at in one of the final scenes. It will appear quite harmless and satisfy cravings in the short run, then leave you wondering if the right decisions were made much later.
Like many of his films, Park’s depictions of intimacy are evocative of straight pornography, which is usually filmed to erase male nudity while fully exposing the female body for the viewer’s consumption. Our first introduction to the budding sexual attraction between Sookhee and Hideko involves a finger, in place of a phallus, entering an orifice. The camera slowly pans to center on Hideko’s face, eliminating Sookhee from the frame aside from her penetrating hand. This near-heterosexual interaction coaxes heterosexuals, and men in particular, into relating the lesbian sexuality to their own.
Although it’s too sweeping of a claim to say that these scenes are incapable of serving anyone but the male gaze, it is inescapable that they were shot with a man behind the camera. This reveals itself especially in instances of intimacy that linger far beyond the point of serving as a plot device. Explicit sex occurs at three points: from Sookhee’s viewpoint (Chapter 1), then Hideko (Chapter 2), and a new one at the end (Chapter 3) involving a set of bells that serves no purpose to the plot other than to offer a “bonus” resolution for lusty audiences. All three involve wide-shots that reveal as much of the body as possible to the viewer with frequent changes in sexual position. The voyeuristic clarity of the women’s bodies at all times, while titillating the viewer as an omniscient third party, reduces the characters’ individual subjectivity. It shifts focus away from the central message of the moment, which is two humans falling in love and sharing a socially taboo form of intimacy.
Though well-acted, these scenes offer an uninhibited spectacle that quickly crosses into exploitative. Queer love is depicted in the most shocking way possible. It is treated as a divisive tool with comedic effect. Within the dark timeline of events, these sequences provide a moment of levity. Like in Lust Caution (2007) or A Frozen Flower (2008)–cult classic East Asian films with legendary scenes of acrobatic lovemaking–the actresses’ poreless, hairless, slender bodies conform to conventional expectations of an “ideal” yellow femme body. Critics have characterized The Handmaiden as lacking the uninhibited violence and cruelty found in Park’s earlier films, but this careless treatment of queer bodies (and female sexuality as a lighthearted form of entertainment) should be perceived as a collective form of violence against the real lives it represents.
Moreover, the consequences of two women finding their sexual freedom submits to the age old trope femme fatale–the idea that women use their sexuality to seduce men and lead them to bad ends. Both Count Fujiwara (Ha Jungwoo) and Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jinwoong) meet fatal ends while the two women make off with their riches, reinforcing the negative, sexist perception that female sexual freedom and queer love would lead to the demise of men. In the final scene, Kouzuki demands Fujiwara to explain how Hideko turned out to be a fearless woman. Kouzuki demands, “Tell me the essence, the process!” to which Fujikwara denies him an explanation, reinforcing female sexuality as mysterious, magical, and incomprehensible. The men perish inside Kouzuki’s torture chamber, underneath a library of priceless books defaced by Sookhee and Hideko. While Sookhee and Hideko’s love feels sincere, it was also portrayed as destructive to their communities and thus, narcissistically self-serving.
Looking past Park’s distracting provocateurs can reveal deeper cultural and philosophical themes. Despite basing his movie on Sara Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, set in Victorian era Britain, Park deliberately changed the setting of The Handmaiden to Japanese-occupied Korea. This is a welcome switch, given the oversaturation of Western stories in the genre of international period films (do we really need anymore high budget romanticizations of the English monarchy?). Park blesses us with a luscious visual vocabulary that shows his deep love and understanding of East Asian art history. Set design and props refer to traditional Japanese shunga (“spring paintings”, or erotica). A certain performative act involving a sex swing nods to contemporary Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Precise camera movements often mimic the horizontal, right-to-left reading of traditional hand scrolls.
Regardless of his well-researched Japanese visuals, Park’s examination of Korean identity as it relates to Japan is fraught with palpable resentment. For many viewers in the United States who are insensitive to tensions between Korean and Japan, and presume a grand unified vision of pan-Asianness, this Othering of and condescension to Japan go unnoticed. Park’s weak female subjectivity supplemented by strong political commentary went way over the head of The New York Times critic Magnohla Darvis, who wrote, “A rebus, a romance, a gothic thriller and a woozy comedy, ‘The Handmaiden’ is finally and most significantly a liberation story. Mr. Park may not seem to be doing all that much with the big ideas simmering here…But the ideas are here, tucked into a different kind of erotic story.” A review in Vulture even described the main character Hideko as Korean, although she is explicitly identified as Japanese in the movie. I guess it’s because we all look the same to Western audiences.
Major unresolved real-life political strife between the two nations include disputed claims over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, as well as the demand for retribution for drafting Korean “comfort women,” sex slaves to the Japanese military during World War II and ultimate symbols of Korean victimhood in the hands of the Japanese. Park establishes the bitter power dynamic between Korea and Japan early on by portraying Sookhee as not just any kind of petty criminal. She works for an orphanage that heartlessly sells infants to Japan. All the Korean characters in The Handmaiden are similarly interested in one thing: assimilating to Japanese culture to make themselves rich and high in social status, even if it’s at the expense of their own young. This is Park’s perception of what causes people to lose their identity and humanity: not helpless victims threatened at gunpoint, but everyday ignorance, weak integrity, and unabashed greed practiced by the privileged.
Although we see how Count Fujikawa occupies the role of shameless Korean social climber within a Japanese-dominant society, Uncle Kouzuki is the embodiment of the despicable ends. After working as a translator for the Japanese government (which, although never explicitly said, is a form of betrayal to Korea), Uncle Kouzuki fills his library with Japanese pornography, abuses his family during their Japanese reading lessons, and his tongue has gone black from his endless days of using it to wet his calligraphy brush — or is it a symptom of his deteriorated soul? Uncle Kouzuki serves as a way to associate Japanese culture with an otherwise unspoken evilness, dispelling Japan’s image of passivity and naivete.
In Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, scholar Kyung Hyjun Kim sees Park’s repeated psychosexual thriller format as a reproduction of relations between Korean citizens and the state. As the audience falls deeper into each character’s memory, history reveals itself to be increasingly perverse and inescapable. The past is always filled with inexpressible sorrow, and the present is characterized by a mad rush to keep up with a rapid flow of new information and societal shifts. As for the future…the future that is conscious of the past is conflicted and never perfectly happy. An example can be taken from Park’s most renowned film, Oldboy (2003), in which the protagonist Daesu comments on the standardization of Korean restaurants after he tries different dumplings across the city and finds them all monotonously the same. After rediscovering his dark past and dirty deeds, he cuts off his own tongue in order to prevent others from finding out. Park plays with speech as a culture-bearer in The Handmaiden as well: one of the most blatant parodies of Japanese culture occurs in a dialogue between Sookhee and another maid, mocking Japanese language as staccatoed, rushed, and excessive.
Ultimately, Park successfully explores the Korean identity under threat, but he does so at the expense of yellow femme bodies. While women play both innocent victims and cunning protagonists in Park’s films, their labor is consistently used for amending relations between men. Park’s characters, such as Mido in Oldboy and Geumja in Lady Vengeance (2005), were both tasked with caretaker roles or appeasement after male-instigated trauma and violence. Park relies upon the woman’s perceived victimhood and “natural” innocence to heighten the horror and shock of their vengeful actions. In The Handmaiden, at least both female characters are driven by their desire for freedom to be with each other, but Park uses their fictional relationship to broach the politically charged subject of Korean-Japanese relations. These repeated tropes reinforce the sexist notion that it is the woman’s predisposition to comfort, heal, and pacify the forces that committed crimes against her own body. Finally, the interracial nature of this couple damages the image of queerness by defining it as something foreign.
Park’s dangerous patriarchal gaze feeds directly into the Othering gaze of non-Asian audiences. The reason why Park’s movies are so popular abroad, as are Asian horror and fantasy movies, is because they reify many existing stereotypes. Stereotypes peak in The Handmaiden’s final sequences, in which Fujiwara suffers from nothing short of castration; this serves to emasculate Asian men and portray them as incapable of attracting their own women. As Michelle Ling, member of the Yellow Jackets Collective, says of white bodies who consume the film:
“They should recognize the violence of their gaze and how their viewing of East Asian diasporic bodies is limited by the invisibility aroundAsian American bodies at home and the hypervisibility of foreign ‘exotic’ East Asian bodies abroad. A lot of the pan-Asian narratives in the United States come from the grouping of Asian Americans into one identity, which render our differences unintelligible and unimportant in an American context.”
International audiences unversed in Korea’s nuanced history are responsible for assigning the film a cult status for its explicit lesbianism and clever plot — the former being toxic for yellow femmes, who are disparagingly portrayed, and the latter being an acceptable, albeit shallow, reason to enjoy it.