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A Bad First Impression: A Review of “The Handmaiden”

Nothing makes you feel more “wrong” as a critic than discovering that you swim against the current in regards to a work generally regarded as a masterpiece. It’s not that I didn’t like Park Chan-Wook’s “The Handmaiden,” but there is one element of it in particular, the one that has granted it much notoriety, that I did not groove with: the graphic sex scenes. I can usually put aside matters of personal taste in giving credit where credit is due, a pertinent example being my review of “Raw” last week; I hate body horror, and although I despised “Raw,” I could still get past my own squeamishness and recognize its success. I enjoyed “The Handmaiden” much more in every aspect, and yet, this one element just didn’t work for me on a level that almost capsizes everything that the film is going for. This review should be read more as a bad first impression rather than as something more definitive, largely because aside from this one thing, “The Handmaiden” is dense with meaning.

“The Handmaiden” follows several characters in their intertwining schemes for love, power and money. Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), is a poor pickpocket and thief, hired by Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo)as a handmaiden to the wealthy Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee), the niece of a rich Korean collector of rare Japanese books, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). As Hideko’s handmaiden, Sookee is expected to convince her to fall in love with the Count and marry him. With her inheritance attained, Sookee and The Count would pull a switcheroo to get Hideko into the nuthouse while the two of them run away and divide the spoils. There’s one problem, however: Sookee and Hideko are beginning to fall in love with each other. What “The Handmaiden” does particularly well is scattering the information it gives to a viewer; within this simple plot, there are plenty of twists, but the beauty is in how the film fills in these gaps in each progressing act, in which chronology doubles over and darts between past and present to slowly give you the entire picture.

Perhaps the most interesting revelation is that Hideko’s abusive uncle is actually a pornography collector. Her aunt (who died by her own hand) and now her, have been used as readers (and by extension, actors) of these pornographic texts for Kouzuki’s wealthy friends. “The Handmaiden” presents one of the bleakest presentations of misogyny I’ve ever seen put to screen. But this is then contrasted by Sookee and Hideko’s love. The vulnerability between them, in my mind, is meant to oppose the objectifying, violent, abusive relationships that men impose on the two of them throughout the film. Their scenes, both using and forgoing dialogue, are laden with romantic tension, and we see their relationship gain greater dimensionality as the gaps in the story are filled. Many have praised “The Handmaiden” as the ultimate “be gay, do crime,” story, and, in theory, they’re right. Their love matched against the sheer evil that the men present, compounded with the intensity of the story’s twists and turns, should make this a no-brainer.

However, we again return to the sex scenes, which, as it turns out, involve Sookee and Hideko. I should state before we go any further: that I’m a straight man should likely be taken into account for the following critiques. I’m not the most knowledgeable of queer cinema, but I do know how these scenes came across to me. In my view, the scenes not only lasted way too long, but considering how graphic they are, it felt as if they were present more for the pleasure of a male viewer than they were to tell the story. If Sookee and Hideko’s relationship is meant to work opposite to the men’s cruelty, it feels odd that its defining feature, the sex, feels refracted through a male gaze. Perhaps, this is intentional: that the intimacy between Sookee and Hideko is shot so explicitly and allowed to go on forever could be meant to echo how the men perceive and enjoy the readings in Kouzuki’s house (one of which, we are shown, is of a book detailing lesbian intercourse). Through this reading, the male gaze becomes inescapable; though Sookee and Hideko’s love for one another pushes against the heteronormative violence that seeks to trap them, their love will remain an object of a man’s gaze and enjoyment. Regardless, the fact is that I felt scuzzy watching it, and the creepiness of this voyeurism ultimately sullied my reflections on the film.

Then again, perhaps this is my fault; graphic sex is just not my thing in the way of painting a picture of an intimate, romantic relationship. It feels too easy, like a physical way of telling rather than showing. Just in case you doubted that these two liked each other, here’s a three-minute, multi-shot sequence of them scissoring. Over. Kill. It completely takes me out of the story and turns the movie into a porno; it becomes less about the characters’ relationship and more about how far an envelope can be pushed. Admittedly, what we have here is a case of an individual element overpowering everything else about a film, compounded by the limitations of my own individual perspective. 1,000 words feels like too few for me to be able to get past it, and it likely requires a more open-minded rewatch in the future. It’s a shame too, since, clearly, “The Handmaiden” is going for something interesting here, with a great deal of cinematic craft. It’s funny, I say it’s deploying a cheap tactic, but this also feels like a cheap cop-out on my part, especially in my last review of the term. I promise, I’ll give “The Handmaiden” another chance someday, but I think I need to recover from it (and become more acquainted with feminist literary criticism) first, before feeling comfortable with giving it another stab.

Rating: 3.5/5

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  • L

    LisaJul 3, 2024 at 5:43 pm

    The claims about the length and explicitness of the lesbian sex scenes are subjective. You don’t consider how other people might find value in them. They weren’t simply a “salacious” spectacle for the male gaze, but a defiant act of love and resistance; a way of reclaiming female sexuality that still disrupts or shatters the dominant heteronormative gaze uncomfortable with same-sex intimacy

    The scenes exist as a representation of “freedom.” Society denies gay people and couples the right to freely express their desires. The unrestrained intimacy of two women or two men defies the tyranny of societal expectations. The viewer’s gaze (male or female) is irrelevant, as the existence of such scenes is already a revolutionary act of visibility

    All forms of media, including “straight” media, exist for the pleasure of the viewer, be they male or female. The artistic merit of gay or lesbian sex scenes shouldn’t be undermined simply because they might be appreciated by viewers of the opposite sex

    I’m a lesbian, and I didn’t mind the scenes in “The Handmaiden,” I hope you will give the movie another chance

  • S

    SookeeJun 23, 2024 at 11:41 pm

    Correct. I love the film but a baffled at the porn. A vagina-can shot before cunnilingus is wayyyyy over the top.