The Handmaiden: Exploring Gender Roles, Relationships and Changing Attitudes

By Jack Ford

Guest Edited by Dafydd Jenkins.

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden – now available from Curzon Artificial Eye – is an exceptional film. On a base level, it’s an expertly crafted multi-layered story that becomes far more interesting and intriguing as it goes on. Furthermore, it deals with complex, difficult and even repellent issues in a thoughtful and highly sensible manner; presenting them in a way that’s easy for audiences to engage with. Thematically, The Handmaiden is largely concerned with the roles of women and their fight to control their own destinies in a male-dominated world.

Based on Fingersmith, (Sarah Waters, 2002) The Handmaiden’s main deviation from the source material is the change in setting: from Victorian England to wartime Japan. Despite this, remaining true to the book’s intentions caused Waters to respond positively about the treatment of her work. “Though ironically the film is a story told by a man,” she says, “it’s still very faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires.”

One of the great joys of the film is to watch its plot unfurl, so the less detail given about it here, the better for the uninformed. At its core, it’s the story of a relationship between reclusive Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the Korean thief hired as her new handmaiden.

Lying somewhere in the subtext of The Handmaiden is a harrowing and haunting historical event – the ‘Comfort Women’ of the Second World War, where many young women and girls were kidnapped, held hostage and repeatedly raped by the invading Japanese army during their wartime occupation of Asia. This event continues to cause tension in particular between Japan and South Korea to this day. While there is not a single mention of these Comfort Women anywhere in The Handmaiden, the film can’t help but echo this horrific piece of history.

It might be, subconsciously, investigating whether the values and attitudes at the time could have caused the event to happen. Without doubt, the characterisation of the film’s male contingents make it easier for the audience to understand the mind-set of someone who would have committed and allowed such an act.

As well as Hideko and Sook-hee, there is a con man who calls himself Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who hires Sook-hee as part of a plot to make off with Hideko’s fortune, and the heiress’s Uncle Kouzki (Cho Jin-woong). Neither are respectful to the women of the film – approaching them with an air of superiority – and they both allude to their views on how sex is for men to enjoy and women to endure, along with a belief that women enjoy the act more when it is ‘forced.’ An alarming mind-set, yet one that will no doubt sound familiar to many of the audience.

These flippant sexual attitudes branch into much darker territory. For as long as Hideko has known, her uncle Kouzuki has threatened female family members to read graphically sexual stories from his vast library of erotica to a crowd of high-paying aristocrats. When Hideko comes of age, she is no exception. In some cases, she is even made to perform the acts she describes with a mannequin.

Both Sook-hee and Hideko eventually go on to destroy Kouzuki’s book collection, in a lengthy and gleeful montage. The sheer screen time dedicated to this sequence serves two purposes: the destruction of the wide array of antique books which emphasises how long women have been depicted as sexual objects, whilst also acting as a symbol for the two, liberating themselves from sexual subservience. When Kouzuki finds his collection destroyed, he barely seems moved – he claims they can be repaired, and those that can’t can be re-created. This is the film making the point that chauvinistic attitudes continue to exist, and at the same time asking how long will it be before they change.

As the film moves on, the female leads’ defiance of their male oppressors’ will extends to the passion they start to feel for one another. Yes, they both go nude and, yes, there are sex scenes, but these moments are not in the film for sensational reasons. They are there to show the growth of the intimacy between the characters, and the awakening of emotions that have long been dormant within them.

For Hideko in particular, her only experiences of this supposedly wonderful thing have left her feeling jaded and unsatisfied, even sad. It’s only after falling in love with Sook-hee that she starts to feel any sort of excitement. She realises that the act of sex itself is meaningless, it’s the emotions that go with it and whether you feel a deep connection with your sexual partner that makes it valuable.

The central themes sexual liberation and the gender hierarchy are some of the key elements that make The Handmaiden such an absorbing experience; these ideas linger with you long after the film has ended. The Handmaiden is generous, not only with its inventive storytelling and lavish production, but how much thinking space it gives to the audience. It allows everyone who sees it to take away as much or as little from it as they want to or feel they can, and for that it is a highly commendable achievement.

***

About the Author

Jack Ford is a charity worker, anti-rape activist and volunteer art gallery attendant from Somerset. Currently, he abides by the Hunter S Thompson quote: ‘I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.’ His work has appeared in Jupiter magazine, on the Bristol Sport website and he writes for The Redeem Team and Nondescript.

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