A young Korean woman, dressed in a Japanese style and speaking that language, raises her leather-gloved hand asking, “Tell me, Juliette. Do you wish this impetuous young knight to save you?” In this critical sequence —which occurs halfway through Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden—Hideko, played by Kim Min-hee, reads erotica to a group of businessmen, under the eyes and orders of her uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong). Sitting amidst a space of bonsai trees, thoughtfully placed rocks, and tatami mats, her listeners are fixated as she speaks in the voices of a duchess, a knight, and Juliette, unafraid to meet the eyes of her audience.
Similar to the entire film, the sequence uses non-chronological editing techniques complementary to visual storytelling (but not the written word). Hideko’s narration from the book ties the wandering images together. As she looks about the group of men, her narration switches to her internal, extradiegetic thoughts (in Korean), remarking on a new face in the crowd. Suddenly, the scene changes and we see Kouzuki remove one of his gloves in order to caress the bare, lash-marked ass of his own niece. He turns to Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), convincing him to take Hideko’s submissive place in the sadomasochistic whipping session. The roles of the characters in the erotic story are transposed with Hideko’s audience. Shots of four men being lashed in the reading room are cut together with Hideko’s voice reading a man’s part. This narration corresponds directly with the violent blows. In the story she narrates, the aforementioned knight enjoys the pain of a noose around his neck. Hideko wraps her gloved hands around her own neck. Park’s constantly-wide-angled camera pulls back from her face, as her exaggerated choking sounds inhabit the soundtrack, until Hideko is a small figure in the large room, her chokehold released, the performed ritual finished. This being the conclusion of the story, her uncle stands, correcting one of the men: the writing isn’t by Sade; it’s merely “Sade-esque.” The book is believed to be by a Japanese author who has lifted elements from Sade’s original opus Juliette.
A number of the film’s essential elements are encapsulated in this sequence. Taking place in Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s, we see confusion and displacement of identities, members of the Korean upper class attempting to appear Japanese, fantasies of sexual violence, and, importantly, leather gloves. The compounding of these ideas and images is an excellent metaphor for the characters’ resistance of, and assimilation into, colonial power. Colonization is violent, sexually aggressive, and ultimately built on fantasy. By fantasy, I mean the imaginary riches that occupying forces believe they will receive by expansion, not taking into account the crippling reality the occupying population endures and resists. As Anne McClintock writes, “Knowledge of the unknown world was mapped as a metaphysics of gender violence–not as the expanded recognition of cultural difference–and was validated by the new Enlightenment logic of private property and possessive individualism. In these fantasies, the world is feminized and spatially spread for male exploration, then reassembled and deployed in the interests of massive imperial power.” Koreans experience an erotic book by a Japanese author, albeit based on a European classic, and make the story their own. All the while, their hands are sheathed in gloves. Are the gloves worn to protect the books from dirty hands, or rather to distance Hideko and Kouzuki’s bodies from the perverse nature of their colonial desires? This muted touch, hidden and revealed by the presence and quality of these gloves, is constantly noted throughout the film.
The most influential element contributing to the 2016 film is the source material: Welsh author Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith (2002). Told in grand, Victorian Gothic fashion, the story revolves around petty thieves Sue and “Gentleman,” and their attempts to extort a fortune from the supposedly naïve Maud Lilly, who is not only young but wealthy. Sue acts as Maud’s maid, while aiming to convince Maud to marry Gentleman, so that the two thieves can rob Maud and leave her in a mental asylum. Things go differently than planned, with Maud and Sue entering into a highly erotic affair and, ultimately, colluding against Gentleman.
Park borrows much of the novel along roughly the same story lines, but transforms it through the context of Korean and Japanese history. Thus, there is a great deal of Western influence superimposed upon the entire film. In changing the title from Fingersmith to The Handmaiden, Park maintains and underscores the notion of touch with its implications of labor, theft, and sexuality.
Often noted for visual spectacles of sexual and violent excess, the films of Park Chan-wook are rife with recurring themes manifested in the body. Throughout the filmmaker’s oeuvre, instances of a more haptic nature are present, yet are often muted within unreciprocated attempts at communication and displays of desire. Haptic sensory experiences have to do with touch, sometimes paired with other senses, both within the diegesis of a film, or thematically. As early as 2002 in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Park makes this muted and confounded language of haptics evident. The protagonist Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun) is mute, using sign language to varying results of comprehension. Similarly, in Park’s most popular film Oldboy (2003), the protagonist Daesu Oh is able to track his former captors down through another sensory organ: his tongue. He follows the taste of the dumplings they fed him every day for fifteen years. Cinema is recognized primarily as a visual medium heavily aided by aural qualities, not often deploying the other senses to advance the story or theme; however, with Park’s films, the other sensual qualities—touch, taste, smell—invite viewers to partake in a more corporeal experience.
In The Handmaiden, the haptic relationships among characters are mediated by a common fetishization of gloves. In an early scene, we find that Lady Hideko has no less than five drawers full of gloves, each set worn for different tasks or occasions. Gloves are elements of both style and signification, as Park draws our attention to her differently-colored gloves in various situations. These muted signals imply the nature of the scene, and are notably removed during moments of privacy and bonding with the titular handmaiden, Sookhee (Kim Tae-ri).
In a story of love between women, gloves also become a sign of distance and contraceptive-like protection in Hideko’s eventual seduction and emasculation of male aggressor Fujiwara. Scholar Kyung Hyun Kim notes, “In nomadic societies, the body was regarded as belonging to the earth; in imperial societies, it belonged to the despot; in the capitalist societies which Park Chan-wook depicts, it belongs to capital.” The Handmaiden shows Korea imbued with outside influences of style, capitalist aggression and greed. By its conclusion, probing fingers desiring capital will be severed, and those bodies desiring liberation will be preserved.
Cinema Studies scholar Robert E. Cagle notes, “Whereas American films consistently retell stories of success in the face of adversity, South Korean films generally revisit instances of historical, political, and cultural trauma, examining these events and their significance to modern-day South Korea.” Cagle goes on to refer to the unhappy, gut-wrenching conclusions seen in Park’s Vengeance trilogy, as well as later films such as Thirst (2009). The Handmaiden concludes differently in that the ending satisfies the expectations of American audiences, perhaps signalling Park’s aspirations to traditional Hollywood structures. This is true in that the characters we are meant to show empathy for are happy in the end, while the scheming, corrupt and outright villainous figures are obstructed. The story indicates a departure from patriarchal structures in that women succeed in the end, but this is contradicted by simultaneously catering to the male gaze.
The irony is that this film appears to be much more about the Korean experience under Japanese occupation, when in fact it presents a highly fantasized account. The element of fantasy is normal for Park, in that Oldboy is based on a cartoonish manga and Thirst deals with supernatural vampires. What all of these films also have in common are spectacles of violence and borderline masochistic, yet pleasurable stimulation of the body. Park’s style of storytelling does not necessarily fall within the horror category—as many critics and distributors assume in light of his former association with the Tartan “Asia Extreme” distribution company—but a mixture of fright, humor, eroticism, and melodrama. These feelings imply genres that Linda Williams files under “body genres,”—films that elicit a physical response to the body, whether it be nausea, sexual stimulation, or tears. Park’s films do not literally touch the spectator’s body, but the sensations go beyond the visual, into haptic territory. What makes The Handmaiden unique within the context of Park’s other fantastic body-related films is its overt colonial setting—it doesn’t act as a history lesson, but allows for the narratives of colonialism to be revealed alongside the bodies of the characters.
By extension of The Handmaiden’s sourcing of Victorian English content, it resonates with Anne McClintock’s text Imperial Leather, in which she discusses nineteenth century England’s class fetishization and the kinky complexity of some master/slave relationships. One particular case is that of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick. The former was an upper-middle class flâneur who had a fascination with the abjection of women workers. He found the love of his life in the servant, Hanna Cullwick. They were secretly married for many years, with Cullwick posing as his servant the entire time. Of Munby’s fetishes, McClintock writes, “Doubtless hands were “infinitely suggestive” for Munby because they visibly expressed the overdeterminations of sex, money and work.”
My suggestion that the fictional characters of Hideko and Sookhee are like Munby and Cullwick is not meant to align the relationships absolutely, but to point out similarities between them. Both couples partake in cross-dressing, be it of gender or class. A series of photographs taken by Munby show Cullwick dressed as a middle-class lady, passing as a man, among other costumes. Coincidentally, The Handmaiden contains scenes in which Hideko dresses Sookhee up in her tight corsets, as well as a sequence near the end of the film when Hideko passes as a man (forging the very identity of her former male captor, Kouzuki) in order to escape to Japan. Elsewhere, Hideko asks Sookhee, “Shall we play maid like before?” There is a definite role-playing aspect to their relationship, compounded by the fact that their very identities are roles initially created to deceive one another, and later Fujiwara.
In Imperial Leather, McClintock mentions Munby’s hand fetish repeatedly, noting his fascination with working women’s hands appearing to be “male,” as well as the purification rituals Munby and Cullwick played out for mutual pleasure. Waters’ novel conveniently works as a conduit in relating the sadomasochistic experiences of a nineteenth century English couple to the fictionalized lovers in 1930s Korea. McClintock states, “As a theater of conversion, S/M reverses and transforms the social meanings it borrows.” Sexual acts or inferences that Hideko had to endure in a torturous way at the hands of Kouzuki operate in a completely different manner when played out with Sookhee.
Near the conclusion of the film, Sookhee and Hideko throw a glove, the bogus wedding ring from Fujiwara, and Hideko’s fake mustache overboard while on a boat to Japan. These are three objects of identity play with different connotations, but together they imply a sense of triumph over oppressive family members, the very institution of marriage, and the construct of masculinity. Meanwhile, we see various scenes, cross-cut between time and space. Kouzuki severs Fujiwara’s fingers one-by-one, demanding that the younger man reveal details of his wedding night with Hideko. Then, in a flashback, we see Hideko disrobe, crawl under the covers, and then remove her pair of gray gloves—a peculiar order of removal implying that seeing her bare hands is more forbidden than seeing the rest of her body. It is revealed that she never even consummated her marriage to Fujiwara, instead bloodying the sheets with a self-inflicted wound on her palm. Whereas the two leading male characters have lost themselves in fantastic reveries, lusting after women, money, power, and the appearance of being Japanese, Sookhee and Hideko act upon their desires and escape both the gothic and colonial entrapments that had been built up around them. One can only speculate on their future, whether they will continue to play the game of upper class lady and handmaiden, or publicly equalize their social status. The Handmaiden shows the possibility of resistance in the face of masculine colonial fantasies. The cinematic world Park creates may be “feminized,” as McClintock suggests unmapped places have been, but this does not mean submissive or ripe for conquest. Rather, the feminine qualities of the film are just as combative as they are elegant, unapologetically sexual, and persistent in the aftermath of violent trauma.
It should be noted that the dialog spoken often goes back and forth from Japanese to Korean, as the identities of the characters are imbued with their first language and the colonial one. ↩
Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest (New York: Routledge, 1995), 23. ↩
To clarify, I am not likening The Handmaiden to those films explored by Laura Marks in her book The Skin of the Film. There are certain similarities that could force such a comparison, understanding that Park’s film is intercultural as a South Korean, Japanese, British, and American production. The potential audience reactions are also similar among any film dealing with identity: “Such cross-identification means that identities are never static but always relational, capable of creating links among different groups that transform these groups.”# Yet it is ultimately not feasible to apply Marks’ argument to The Handmaiden because she examines grassroots experimental films such as Rae Tajiri’s History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991), Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1992) by Raoul Peck, The Black Audio Film Collective’s Who Needs a Heart (1993), etc. The sometimes-literal hand-delivery of such films differs staggeringly from The Handmaiden’s distribution by Amazon Studios, one of the most commercial and pervasive distributors in contemporary motion picture culture. Park’s film is doubtlessly a capitalistic venture, yet this does not taint a reading of it in regards to colonization and international tensions. ↩
Kim Kyung Hyun, “Tell the Kitchen That There’s Too Much Buchu in the Dumpling”: Reading Park Chan-wook’s “Unknowable” Oldboy,” in Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, edited by Choi Jinhee & Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong U Press, 2009), 190. ↩
Robert L. Cagle, “The Good, the Bad, and the South Korean,” in Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, edited by Choi Jinhee & Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong U Press, 2009), 126. ↩
Park challenges the male gaze (as written about by Laura Mulvey and many other scholars) in some scenes, restraining his lens or using women’s point of view shots, but the final scene is typical of what mainstream cinema presents. Hideko and Sookhee may have “won,” but their naked bodies are still subjected to wide-angled, omnipotent, examination. ↩
This is examined at length in Chi-Yun Shin’s article in Horror to the Extreme, “The Art of Branding: Tartan “Asia Extreme” Films.” Shin examines the “problematic ways in which Tartan canonizes and gentrificates [sic] the disparate East Asian film titles under the Asia Extreme banner”(87). This nagging orientalism is inevitably still present, as illustrated by some American reviews of The Handmaiden, but this topic deserves a whole other essay of its own. ↩
Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly Vol 44. No 4 (Summer 1991): 2–13. ↩
McClintock, Imperial Leather, 99. ↩
Ibid., 134–136. ↩
Ibid., 158. By purification rituals I mean the elevation of things as common as baths, hand and feet washing, etc, to a fetishistic status similar to religious ceremonies. ↩
Ibid., 143. ↩
Joseph Dwyer is a filmmaker and writer currently living in Oakland, CA. His work has screened in many places including Anthology Film Archives (NY, NY), The Chicago Underground Film Festival, Artists' Television Access (San Francisco), and venues in Canada and Germany. His current writing is mostly about horror, fantasy, desire and eroticism in cinema. Joseph has an MFA and MA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a BA from Hampshire College.