Park Chan-Wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’ – A Feminist, LGBTQ+ Classic in a Deeply Misogynistic Genre
Spoilers for ‘The Handmaiden’
Park Chan-wook. You may not be familiar with his name, but I am sure you are familiar with his work. A critically-acclaimed director, screenwriter and producer, Park was the mind behind films such as Joint Security Area (2000) and the films that have been dubbed The Vengeance Trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005) . His films often cover brutal, touchy subject matters, involve black humour and explore dark themes of oppression, repression and abuse.
While his films encapsulate these themes and present themselves as slick, cinematic masterpieces, The Handmaiden (2016), to me, stands above the rest of his body of work. The film is Park’s adaptation of the 2002 Victorian crime novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. While adapting a novel, let alone one set in a completely different culture and time period, is no easy feat, Park’s adaptation is faithful but more so than that. In Water’s own words, she says the film amplified the original story adding its own ingenious twists and turns.
As a film,The Handmaiden is a classic of erotic cinema but more than that it is also an inherently feminist work. The film shows the potential of women’s autonomy and sexuality. The novel itself was witten by Waters, a lesbian woman. While having a male director adapt a beloved tale of LGBTQ+ women, may seem like it would have potential red flags, Park’s adaptation is respectful in all counts.
Portrayal of women on screen, especially in erotic thrillers, often see women sexualised and objectified. If not objectified, we see them vilified and depicted as hypersexual villains who end up being the ruin of a good man. We just have to look at the femme fatale trope to see that there is an anxiety towards women with a fully realised sexuality and autonomy. This is even worse when we look at LGBTQ+ women. It is a fact that they rarely get fair representation on screens (a problem shared by everyone in the LGBTQ+ community) while falling victim to the ‘bury your gays’ trope.
While it is common to see bisexual or lesbian women fetishised in film for the sake of male audiences, or see straight characters play at such behaviours for attention of male characters, The Handmaiden avoids letting characters fall into such pigeon holes. Even though it has its fair share of explicit, raunchy scenes, Park stays very focused in the intent. In the film, women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition to find their own way of exploring their desire. Through the use of the narrative and the camerawork, Park creates a film unlike anything that has come before.
Structurally, the film follows the novel’s three-act structure. Reminiscent of elaborate heist movies, the first act is in Sook-Hee’s (Kim Tae-Ri) perspective, showing the setup for con. In the second act, Hideko’s (Kim Min-Hee) perspective gives us the twist and the third act is a grand reveal and epilogue with an omniscient point of view which ties up the stories of all the characters. In following such a structure, this gives each female character a perspective, allowing audiences to better empathise with them.
In giving us two female perspectives, Park gives us two different approaches to femininity. In Hideko, we see a more traditional, soft femininity and in Sook-Hee we see a rejection of traditional femininity for a more ‘masculine’, individualised approach. Where Hideko is soft, Sook-Hee is fiery. Yet what brings these two women together is their love for the feminine. The first we see of their attraction towards each other comes from the scene where they ‘dress up’ together.
They are initially united by their appreciation for beautiful things in the form of clothes and jewellery. While traditionally, such things are labelled ‘girly’ and, when seen through a patriarchal paradigm, bears the misogynistic implication of being lesser, Park shows this as a form of bonding. This levels out the class imbalance, seeming to put the two women on equal footing. This attraction then extends past material possessions to influence the way they look at each other.
In that, we have to talk about the gaze. Gaze, as a word, is often used interchangeably with the words look or glance. However in film (and philosophy), gaze bears a different meaning. The gaze, shown through the lens of the camera, gives a way in which to view something (i.e. the characters on screen). There is a subject, the watcher, and an object, the watched. Gaze can easily be used to oppress or liberate, depending on its use.
Often you would hear explicit or raunchy scenes on film being described as ‘male-gazey’ and ‘reductive’. This is true in that the camera in films often actively sexualises and objectifies women. In the genre of erotic thriller, it is common for the camera to sexualise female characters. In prototypical erotic thrillers we see prolonged shots on the female body as the camera trails up her legs or lingers on her curves. The use of a higher camera angle also allows us to look down on the object of the gaze, suggesting that they are lesser. This is commonly used to emphasize the masculine/male gaze and objectify the women on screen, treating her as a body on nothing more.
In The Handmaiden, we only get such shots when it’s directly from the perspective of Hideko or Sook-Hee. The camera serves to show us what these characters see and desire. Rather than a callous objectification, it’s a celebration of the beauty of the female form. Both characters see each other the same way and there is no imbalance in the power dynamic despite the barriers of class and race. In this, the gaze serves to equalise them as well as help them realize their sexuality.
While the camera does explicitly show the bodies of characters, we see and understand that this is what the women see in each other. The gaze is always neutral as the camera doesn’t serve to accentuate features or treat the women like objects, rather it shows us what Hideko or Sook-Hee sees: the raw unedited female form. This is obviously intentional as the other female characters are neither shown sexually nor objectified.
As a visual medium, the film also shows strong symbolism and visual storytelling. In a powerful and compelling scene, we see the two women rage against the powers that keep them restrained. They physically destroy the physical symbols of Hideko’s oppression and abuse. As we see Sook-Hee violently tear up Kouzuki’s (Cho Jin-Woong) prized collection, we see Hideko slowly gaining the confidence and joining in on the destruction. With Hideko beginning as reluctant and fearful, we see her finally being unafraid and, with the support of Sook-Hee, fully embracing her freedom. The scene that follows as the women run in an empty field, side-by-side gives us the long awaited pay off and is catharsis at its best.
Unlike the novel, the film gives the women more autonomy and power. We see the women plot against the men that have treated them as lesser beings. They show the potential of a fully realised woman, as they outsmart and evade the patriarchal powers that pursue them. In the film, the women stand united and create their own happy ending. They are a force to be reckoned with and no outside forces and oppress or control them any longer.
Overall, The Handmaiden is an empowering, captivating film. It respects the source material and subject matter to give us easily one of the most compelling, evocative feminist movies out there. Unlike adaptations that do not match up to their predecessors, it is easy to see that The Handmaiden is the perfect adaptation and extension of a work. By a lesser hand, the film could have been derivative or offensive but as it stands, it is perfect.
Catch the trailer here:
– Lost in the Throes of Passion – Star-Crossed Lovers in Asian Cinema
– The Representation We Need – Web Series ‘People Like Us’ is a Respectful Portrayal of Being Gay in Singapore
– An Interview with Emmy-Nominated Writer and Director Leon Cheo
The Handmaiden is available for rental streaming on Amazon Prime Video.