The Handmaiden: Exploring Gender Roles, Relationships and Changing Attitudes

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden – now available from Curzon Artificial Eye – is an exceptional film.

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.

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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.

Review of The Beguiled: Standing Up for Female Voices in Cinema

By Dean Pettipher

The Beguiled

Directed by Sofia Coppola

Written by Thomas Cullinan (based on the novel by), Albert Maltz (based on the screenplay by), Irene Kamp (based on the screenplay by) Sofia Coppola.

Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning & Colin Farrell

Barely two months have passed since the seventieth annual Cannes Film Festival and Sofia Coppola’s historic achievement as the second woman ever to win the award for Best Director. This was accorded for helming the enchanting motion picture masterpiece The Beguiled (2017). In the wake of recent discussions highlighting significant gender inequality within the film industry (see Jennifer Lawrence’s wage gap essay published in 2015) Coppola’s latest movie is crucial for maintaining the momentum towards a totally level cinematic stage. The Beguiled enchants, not just because it was directed by a woman, but principally due to a truly excellent collaboration that has brought about one of the most finely-crafted films so far this year. Thus, the various rewards earned for such efforts do not feel like tokenistic virtue-signalling by fake officials.

The primary sources for Coppola’s adaptation were composed by men. There was another movie, also entitled The Beguiled (1971), directed by Don Siegel. There was, of course, also the novel that started it all, written by Thomas Cullinan and first published in 1966, initially titled A Painted Devil. Not least because of the elegant exploration of the passions that men and women share as human beings, Coppola’s latest movie is a believable illustration that a film with a female gaze at its heart can be as good, if not better, than those that have been projected with a male lens.

The acting is superb. Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning in particular shine in their respective roles within the nineteenth century Virginian girls’ school. They each create their own uniquely compelling chemistry with Colin Farrell’s ostensibly charming character, a Union soldier, who desperately seeks sanctuary from the ravages of the American Civil War. Coppola’s script sizzles with tension in all its guises, courtesy of often cut-throat dialogue at the dinner table. The tension generally remains defiant when the dialogue gives way to action, thanks to some graceful and occasionally swift camerawork. While at times dulled a little by repetitiveness, the cinematography emerges triumphantly gorgeous in capturing the beauty of the white palaces situated upon the Southern plantations. The costumes thrive off of their intricate details; the women appear unquestionably fabulous in glossy dresses, and the guy that they aspire to impress looks pretty damn dashing as well. Consequently, the trill of the tale lies, to a great extent, in assessing which character is having the greater effect on their object of affection. All seem capable of rousing a state of limerence within those of the opposite sex, or at least prompting them to uncontrollably quiver in his or her presence.

The magic of the film fades not infrequently, but on each occasion quickly re-surfaces before the audience is lost. Kidman’s Southern accent slips from time to time, but fortunately not enough to tarnish her undeniably commanding presence and mellifluous voice. Perhaps the respective characters portrayed by Dunst and Fanning could have had their personal pursuits with Farrell’s character further developed through their dialogue, so that the stakes could have felt that much higher. On the other hand, a lot is communicated through both extremely subtle and very explicit displays of body language, which successfully maintain the central mysteries surrounding individual character motivations.

Ultimately, The Beguiled can seduce an audience. While Coppola’s Best Director prize is a well-deserved accolade, in the end, one must be more concerned about the opportunity than the awards. Women, like men, deserve to be given the chance to take the risk with their artistic visions in film and beyond. The Beguiled and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) are just two recent examples of that risk paying off both financially and in terms of positive social change.

Any drama set during the American Civil War will prompt audiences to consider the other tragic inequalities that plagued that period. During this film, they would then notice how those inequities appear to have been omitted almost entirely, as the film focuses on a particular set of female perspectives. Some have even ventured towards firm convictions that this is racism and whitewashing, elevating the image of the ‘Southern Belle’; of which many feel is a racist fiction. This is a useful criticism, which ties into the fact that feminist narratives must continue to reflect the intersectionality of modern feminism. However, it is still valuable to see the empowerment of female points of view. Therefore, this film does of course have flaws, but as Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenin, ‘if you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.’

THE VERDICT: 9/10

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About the Author

Born in South Africa and raised in England, Dean studied for a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Chichester. For the second year of this endeavour, he took part in a one-year student exchange programme at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada. Dean later obtained a PGCE in Primary Education. He is currently based in London and working for a children’s charity.
Beyond the workplace, Dean enjoys reading, going to the cinema and spending time with friends whenever possible. In addition to Canada and South Africa, countries that he has visited include the United States, Malaysia and much of Europe.

Merge/Flow/Flux

By Jordan Harrison-Twist

In the flow of electricity, code is used to describe required actions for computer systems, distinguishing them from the limited specialized capacities of lowly machines. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer and contemporary of Charles Babbage, foresaw that code could hold symbolic value, so computers could behave outside of the boundaries of mathematics. Binary code, with its appearance of phallic 1s and vulvic 0s, begins as a morass of unordered possibilities, and in finding a moment of insemination in the flow, depicts a legible word or image. But the sexual metaphor in binary code remains bound to ideas criticized in cyberfeminist theory — criticisms which emerged in the late 1980s in relation to the advent of information technologies. The 1 represents a something — a phallus — and the 0 represents a lack — a not-phallus — illustrating the way our social lives were coded into the network: with the gender dualism intact, replete with immanent disparity. Thus, even in the domain of cyberspace, with its emancipatory and disruptive prospects, the woman remains servile to the militarized, commercialized technologies of patriarchal capitalism. Forever a nonentity, reliant on the 1 to determine her existence — he’s the one, I just know it — perpetually giving birth to legibility becomes her only function. Ada Lovelace in her programming wisdom had in the 1830s already criticised the limits of mathematical binary by inscribing it with nuance. Her first name ADA is now given to a programming language used by the US military.

Mamoru Oshii’s acclaimed anime film Ghost in the Shell (1995) investigates the flow of data in relation to consciousness and reproduction. In an information-oriented 2019, the world is connected by an electronic network that pervades all life. The network is accessed by implanting one’s consciousness, one’s ‘ghost’, into a cybernetic body, or a ‘shell’. Born from the sea of information, the Puppet Master is a military creation who becomes sentient, and as all life, seeks a body with which to reproduce, and ultimately, to die. In the film’s climax, the protagonist Motoko Kusanagi merges with the Puppet Master, combining their consciousnesses into a new body, to create something neither Motoko, nor the Puppet Master, but something else: a synthesis of motherless, fatherless mechanical replication. The line drawn between reproductive gender roles becomes permeable as the equal fluidity of merging displaces penetrative sexual intercourse — in a maelstrom of consciousnesses extra-utero.

Rupert Sanders’s less sophisticated live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell (2017) has been much criticized for its gratuitous appropriation of Asiatic motifs, and the ‘whitewashing’ decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead. Strangely though, I actually prefer the iconic scene in which Motoko goes deep-sea diving. More tersely construed than in the anime, Johansson’s Motoko states that she relishes the fear of being submerged, the ‘cold, dark. No voices. No-data-streaming. Nothing […] Feels real’. Far from the indulgent philosophizing of the anime (based on Shirow Masamune’s manga), the transformative power of the disinterested, treacherous water works better with this simplicity of terms — this is, of course, the point: this dive is the opposite of Motoko’s digital ‘deep dive’ into the agitated data memories of a cybernetic Geisha assassin, a mission in which Motoko is tracked and hacked, and the haptic power of her shell is diminished.

One issue with the remake is that twenty years on, the same questions and dichotomies of the original are posed in quite the same way, just with more green-screened bombast. Paradoxically, the accusations of whitewashing have added a unique point of contention to the film’s conclusion. In the remake, we are faced with an Asiatic consciousness concealed in the body of a white woman — a body whose synthetic white ‘naked’ skin is exposed in full when ‘Major’ Motoko is engaged in battle, but whose heritage (in the narrative, as well as the film’s origins) is distinctly Japanese. Sanders’s film is as much about, as it is in service of digital enhancement — not just about ghosts and shells, but also about surfaces and skins.

The seminal text for discussions on gender and technology is Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1984), which discusses the liberating potential of breaking down the biological and technological dualism, as set out in Ghost in the Shell. Criticizing this, as well as the animal/human, male/female, and nature/culture dualisms, she claims that the perceived dichotomy has become a border war, the stakes of which are the ‘territories of production, reproduction, and imagination’. She characterizes contemporary human life as already technologically mediated, and looking at the meeting point of microelectronics and sex — genetic engineering and reproductive technologies — that it is not clear ‘who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine’.

The power to make is one attributed to both the machine and the mother, and as ciphers for this distinction, both electricity and water hold fundamental associations with the creation and maintenance of life. But just as electricity and water share a vernacular — both ripple, channel, flow, surge; floods can flash and dams can burst — the perceived dichotomy between the synthetic and the natural, replication and reproduction, is one in embattled flux. The cyborg’s legacy is not just a half-and-half synthesis of the human being and machine, nor is it one of the conceptions of male and female; rather the cyborg might be liminal, but not median; a network or a whirlpool or a wind; a spectre crackling along the fault-lines of the limitations of binary code, and public debates about Hollywood’s ersatz whiteness of skin.

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About the Author

Jordan Harrison-Twist is a writer and designer living and working in London and Manchester. In 2017, he graduated from the Royal College of Art with an MA in Critical Writing in Art & Design. He writes about humour, pop culture, literature, and art and design.
His RCA award-winning dissertation is named A Conversation with a Bicycle: A Cultural History of Collision Between Humans and Machines — and charts moments in literary texts, cinema, recent history, and art and design, in which humans and machines have met, collided, merged, spiralled together, repelled one another, imploded, or proved impossible to reconcile. The text touches on the Surrealist attachment to the mannequin, the ethics of artificial intelligence, sex robots, and commercial space travel.