Review: The Handmaiden
How to give a manicured middle finger dripping in your girl's pussy juice to the patriarchy.
tl/dr: This movie had me SHOOK.
The handmaiden (Sook-hee) is a con artist who's working with another scammer (Fujiwara) to pull the wool over the eyes of this heiress (Hideko) and her rich but creepy uncle (Kouzuki) and take their money. Homegirl shows up in the mansion and starts *dun dun duuuun* straight girl crushing. The following images are in the first 30 minutes of the movie. It was like watching the fastest evolution of Charizard ever.
I'm not taking it that seriously because at this point we've got; a lesbian crush on a straight, the straight girl's got a man chasing her, a one off sexual encounter between the two girls, and the out lesbian girl is hurt because now she's got to watch this girl go off and be boo'd up with some man because she can't cope with her gayness. I'm waiting for the line 'I'm only gay for you', and 'I've never done this before', and the out lesbian character to die. Lesbihonest, we know this is THE formula.
Then, Park Chan-Wook came for me. Came for my edges, came for my soul. Park Chan-Wook came for me like Tina Knowles birthed him, like he was Beyonce dropping Lemonade in the dead of night coming to collect his due. He then proceeded to drag me by my moisturised edges for another HOUR AND A HALF. 90 minutes of my life spent with bated breath and a raggedy ass hairline.
When the movie finished I asked myself: ' What just happened?'
Me: 'Let's re-watch it.'
Myself: 'It's 2 in the morning, are you really going to rewatch this 2.5 hour long movie ?'
Me: 'Yes. They have exposed male behaviour as trash, there's a happy ending and brutal horror scenes. They used the men's own trash perceptions of them to destroy them...Press Play!!!'
I ordered McDonalds breakfast and re-watched The handmaiden.
One of my main issues with a lot of queer cinema is that it feels like I'm watching pain porn. Anguish, desire, hiding how you feel because it might be dangerous isn't only for heteronormative couples but it is shown so much in queer cinema that it feels that it's the total sum experience. Queer people deserve to have happy endings in cinema as well. I didn't even realise I was holding my breath waiting for one of them to die until the movie ended, and I exhaled out of sheer relief.
This movie worked by being extra while being self aware in very beautifully shot scenes. The movie is an adaption of the Welch Victorian novel 'The Fingersmith'. Set in the same time period but in Korea under Japanese rule is a nice but subtle touch to Korea's own history under imperialism. The subtle power play between representations of how the female bodies of colonisers are treated as commodities that 'enrich' colonised men, at the cost of the female bodies of the colonised women was brilliant and very nearly imperceptible.
Sasaki, the head butler, turns out to be Kouzuki's ex-wife whose Korean name we never know, is out here walking around with trifling ass Kouzuki's own insecurities of his Korean identity projected on her while she keeps house for the Japanese women. The portrayal of Sasaki is one where we should see her as a perpetrator of injustice, in complete honesty I cannot hate this character. I'm not sure that she hates Hideko, but I'm sure that she hates everything that girl represents and I'm sure she hates her ex-husband as well just not as much as she needs to be with him. Perhaps she thinks that if the girl just goes then it will go back to the way it was before, someone tell her her dude is the problem. He don't act right, Sasaki! He a trifling ass ho, he don't deserve you! *Cyn Santana voice*
Uncle Kouzuki once married to a Korean woman leaves her to marry a Japanese woman, and forces his Korean ex-wife to be the head of his household while he further fuels his ambition to 'be Japanese'. His Japanese wife passed, and later in the timeline when questioned why he's sleeping with his Korean ex-wife now, responds 'because Koreans are ugly and Japanese are very beautiful' and 'Koreans are stupid and ugly and that applies to Sasaki as well'. Not only is homeboy a super trifling ass creep but he's also a representation of how far colonised men will go to work for colonialism.
Count Fujiwara is a peasant from Jeju who scams his way into having the creepy Uncle think that he's a Japanese count who can forge expensive artwork. Uncle Kouzuki will only hire Japanese forgers? I don't know man, but game recognise game and Uncle didn't peep anything but Fujiwara did. We can also argue that the reason that Kouzuki wants to control the Japanese women and have them act out various 'demeaning' sexual acts is a way for him to act out his desire to exercise control over the women whose bodies act as a physical manifestation of Japanese imperial 'purity'.
While discussing a new forgery project dear Uncle Kouzuki gives the go ahead for Fujiwara to try and get his niece to buss it open for him. His words not mine. Ok, my phrasing but that's the essence of it. Little does the creepy Uncle know but Hideko is eavesdropping on the whole conversation.
Fujiwara hits up Hideko later in the night and has the following conversation:
Fujiwara: Ey shorty, your Uncle's a weirdo. Let's get this bag and bounce.
Hideko: Bet, I'm about my money.
Fujiwara: We elope, and split it 50/50
Hideko: Iight. Get an uneducated peasant girl and we'll lock her up in an insane asylum in my place. Then we can split ways with the money.
Then they shook on it, and Fujiwara was messing around with the maid to get her fired. I'm not completely sure it was a consensual thing, but it was glossed over pretty quickly. Fujiwara goes and gets Sook-hee, presumably because she was dumb, and I think maybe guessed she liked women. He doesn't tell her she's supposed to be in an insane asylum though. He then spends the rest of the movie going along with the plan that he and Hideko had made. Fujiwara is basically everything that Kouzuki is but younger.
Hideko is seen as a prize to be acquired and never loses this status, in contrast to Sook-hee. Sook-hee thinks that she's watching some innocent, virtuous rich lady get set up for the okie-doke. Little does she know however, that she's the one being played because Hideko has it all set-up. Not only is she disposable, but Hideko manipulates and commands her to perform some very personal activities.
She only stops being disposable to Hideko when she realises that she caught feelings and can't go through with it which so happened to take place after sex. Then she decides to switch the plan from screwing over Sook-hee (the one she's screwing) to screwing over Fujiwara (the one she's not screwing). Let's think about it...that's the best plan for her in the long run. Sook-hee never caught onto her manipulation, but Fujiwara spotted it, and her spying. Sook-hee is disposable to everyone else though. In the end when Kouzuki is searching for them Sook-hee is able to use her name and freely travel, but Hideko cannot.
Despite this, Hideko is always in a position of power with Sook-hee even as they are falling in love. Everything from directing her to join her in the bath, to join her in bed, is done at Hideko's command. Even though Hideko is a woman, she is a wealthy Japanese who not only holds colonial power in Sook-hee's home country but also social capital and wealth against Sook-hee. For the majority of the time they're on screen, Hideko is being called Agassi , Sook-hee's always fulfilling her servant duty. It's weird man, and it seems like a manipulation of power on Hideko's part.
Sook-hee, our resident scammer wants nothing more than to wear expensive dresses, eat foreign food and travel. In the end she does exactly that, she gets everything that she initially wanted. I'm a bit uncomfortable with the power dynamics between Hideko and Sook-hee. Yes, they are both women, and yes they are both being manipulated, but not quite in the same way.
The ending scene where Hideko and Sook-hee are on a boat headed to China, even though Hideko is disguised as a man, it's Sook-hee who is carrying the luggage. The grand finale is the death of the two dudes who were selling out Korean women in order to obtain the pure, rich women from the colonial country (Japan) side by side with a clip of Sook-hee and Hideko participating in some metal bells in the coochie play? Not my p*ssy not my business, but then I realised that what Hideko was acting out with Sook-hee was one of the erotica books her Uncle had her act out. SO IS SHE REALLY LIVING FOR HERSELF OR IS SHE ACTING OUT EVERYTHING SHE'S BEEN TAUGHT. *pause* I don't know if she's free or the thing that she hated the most, I hope she gets the therapy she needs though.
While I'm glad that they did escape the clutches of the patriarchy in a Japanese household ran by a trifling Korean man with colonial aspirations, I do hope that the next lesbipositive film has the two main protagonists on equal setting.