What do you know, leaning into the straight male gaze (and then fucking with it) CAN lead to great things.
What do I mean by that? Well, the first thing one needs to know about, “The Handmaiden” is that it is very explicit in its violence and sexuality to the point where one can almost feel writer/director Chan-wook Park and co-writer Seo-kyeong Jeong breathing heavily through each scene they construct. Tits? Oh, you’re going to see them. Very gory moments? Done and done. There’s even an extended lesbian sex sequence that plays out TWO times as the movie’s narrative shifts. All in a story set in the early 19th century, during Japan’s occupation of Korea, centering on a group of con artists plotting to rob a wealthy man named Count Fujiwara, nationalized by the Japanese (played by Jung-woo Ha). Tae-ri Kim plays the younger con artist named Sook-Hee, hired as a maid by the wealthy man, who eventually cozies up to the wealthy man’s wife, Lady Hideko (played by Min-hee Kim) in the midst of some additional scheming by “Uncle Kozuki” (an amazing performance by Jin-woong Jo). To give away any more details would be to give the sometimes beautiful, sometimes squicky twists and turns of the plot itself less impact. So, I’ll just elaborate in more abstract terms what I mean by how the movie successfully has its cake and eats it too when it comes to gratifying an assumed male gaze while also providing a story of eventual liberation of two women in racist and sexist times (no, really).
There are many visual motifs involving kinky sex, paraphernalia and colloquial expressions referring to such. In particular, the wealthy mark’s fascination with witnessing sexual acts more so than participation thereoff (due to having a personality so toxic it’s amazing he even has a bride at all), with “Kozuki” riffing off of said fascination as a con-artist while also indulging in such (because…well, because straight guys). This is in stark contrast to the conflict/bonding between Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko, which given the whole convoluted con/mark relationship is pretty fraught but grows…well, steamy due to a slow realization that in the midst of all of the scheming, both are ultimately marks of a different kind, in ways linked to their society’s general views on female agency and worth. Again, I won’t reveal the specifics, for to paraphrase Potter Stewart, you’ll know it when you see it. But it’s an impressive narrative trick for a plot that is so gleefully gaudy that it comes dangerously close to being something that wouldn’t be out of place in a season of, “American Horror Story”, or, at least, functions like the world’s most expensive Korean historical soap opera as co-produced by HBO.
What’s more is that the movie transplants a story based on, “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters into a period of Japan’s occupation of Korea, and thus takes on that period’s various layers of inequality on basis of race and gender. So it has, Count Fujiwara played by Korean actor Jung-woo Ha as he speaks Japanese at all times, participates in Japanese cultural norms, and has an extensive collection of some of the most explicit Japanese erotica, despite being…well, Korean. This gets him called variations of, “traitor” by the con-artists who go after his fortune, in the midst of a time where Koreans are clearly suffering under Japanese rule. Now, one may ask, “Isn’t it kind of racist to have a Korean person play such a risible caricature of the Japanese?” Well, who can say (at least from this writer’s U.S.-influenced perspective)? The truth is, there has been a fractured and contemptible history of colonization by the Japanese of not just Korea, but China and other parts of Asia, a history that people are still wrestling with to this day, from Hayao Miyazaki’s, “The Wind Rises” being essentially a disney-esque portrait of Jiro Horikoshi (that somehow pissed some Japanese nationalists off), to Japanese institutions either struggling to grapple with said history or denying it altogether. This, along with the movie’s sexual/gender politics encompasses the movie’s double-faced motives: what is shown to the viewer as a gratifying, sordid tale unearths volcanoes worth of anger and lust at and within historical periods. Call it, “reverse racism” or, “barbaric nationalism” if you must, that, “The Handmaiden” is able to juggle all of this along with heaping helpings of sex and gore is the one of movie’s many gutsy moves.
That’s not even mentioning how beautiful and immersive the movie is. Even at its most outlandish (some of the violence, that aforementioned sex scene), cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, costumer designer Sang-gyeong Jo, Makeup artist Jong-hee Song and production designer Seong-hie Ryu make a production that looks like a million bucks and then some. What’s equally important is the sound. There are clever bits of sound work by Jung Gun and Suk-won Kim that accentuates key moments in bloodletting and sexual tension/release, in ways that allow the movie to inform the viewer of their importance without having them spelled out. Even as one gets lost in the film’s convoluted central scheme and the fractured narrative order that lets you see the story from multiple sides, the movie’s precision and flourishes ensure that you won’t lose the movie’s emotional core. To share just one detail, you probably won’t see peaches, the moon or balls the same way ever again (insert smirk here).
Let’s be clear: “The Handmaiden” does not destroy the male gaze. Instead, it revels in it and then twists it, deceptively keeping it intact while sneaking within it’s labyrinth plot an emotionally powerful story that just so happens to have two women in the center of it all. Usually, that would be good enough, for even at their best there is only so much creative types can do with such an explicit content in an age where feminine desire is second-guessed at best, weighed down by toxic bullshit and exploitation at worse. But with great direction, powerful sociopolitical/historical subtext, a dizzying plot and fantastic performances…well, I’d say it’s much more than good enough.
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