Once upon a time in Japanese-occupied Korea.
It is the 1930s. A young mother hugs her mother and hands over her crying child. The young mother’s name is Okju and she has to leave the family to work in the house of a Japanese family. Her sister, who is holding two babies herself, says through tears that it should have been her working for that family.
It is a long journey from a city train on a rainy day to a car down a rural road on a clear night. Okju finally arrives at the grand house and introduces herself to the Butler Madam, who goes by the name Sasaki. Sasaki goes over the rules of the house and says that Okju will go by the Japanese version of her name: Tamako.
Sasaki leads Tamako upstairs to a hallway with a door on each side. One side reveals a Tamako’s…bedroom. Literally, it is a room just for her bed.
The door on the other side leads to Lady Izumi Hideko’s bedroom. Apparently, Lady Hideko wakes easily due to nerves, so Tamako needs to stay close. Tamako tries to sneak a peek into Lady Hideko’s bedroom, but a thump sends her scurrying to her bed.
Lady Hideko screams for her mother in the middle of the night, and a half-awake Tamako clumsily goes running through the dark to her. Lady Hideko asks Tamako if she is Junko, her previous handmaiden. Tamako tells Lady Hideko that she is the new handmaiden and that Junko got kicked out. Lady Hideko tells Tamako that her aunt had hanged herself from the cherry tree outside the bedroom window and that her ghost sometimes dangles from the branch. As Tamako looks out at the tree, Lady Hideko screams and runs off, holding her bedsheet above her as she herself were a ghost. Eventually, she returns to bed and Tamako gives her some medicine. Well, medicine if you count sake as medicine. Tamako tells Lady Hideko that her aunt would give this to crying babies. Then Tamako climbs into bed with Lady Hideko and sings a Korean lullaby.
Wait. Let’s back up a bit. The movie is not even eight minutes in and it is already messing with us. If you have not seen the movie and want to avoid spoilers, then stop reading now.
For one thing, Okju is neither Tamako nor Okju. Her name is Nam Sookee. That older woman from the beginning did raise her, but was not her biological mother. She is Miss Boksun, and is a purveyor of stolen goods. Sookee’s mother was a thief who was (eventually) caught and hanged. Sookee learned from Boksun and fellow members of the gang how to be a thief and forger at a very young age. And Sookee is not the mother of that baby that she had been holding either. Miss Boksun’s gang…collect abandoned newborns, take care of them until they look healthy, and sell them to high class families in Japan.
One day, a man arrived at their house. He may be a former protégé of Miss Boksun, but the important thing is that he knows the gang and is a con artist. Without so much as exchanging greetings, he started in on his scheme. He told about an interpreter who bribed his way into translating for high officials, aided Japan in its annexation of Korea, and was rewarded with rights to a gold mine for his treachery. Putting on airs of being Japanese himself, he got naturalized, married the daughter of a fallen Japanese noble, and adopted her family name of Kouzuki. With his power and prestige, he built a house for his rare books and antiques. He holds readings and auctions for Japanese collectors. Not wishing to part with his works, he decided to make fakes to sell to the collectors. And he hired a real Japanese noble named Count Fujiwara to make these forgeries, not realizing that “Count Fujiwara” was this Korean con artist.
Kouzuki’s wife died childless. But her sister, who died in childbirth, has a daughter who performs his book readings. As for that girl’s father? Well, he is also dead, leaving Kouzuki as her guardian. Lady Hideko is in ownership of nearly 2 million in cash and bonds. Her uncle plans to marry her in order to officially get ownership of that fortune. “Count Fujiwara” has planned seduce Kouzuki’s niece, have her run away with him, elope with her to Japan, inherit her fortune, and have her thrown in a madhouse. But he needed Sookee to act as his spy and gently persuade the niece to fall in love with him. Sookee silently scoffed that this crook knows nothing about love. In return the Bokusn gang would get 50,000 while Sooke personally gets the dresses and jewelry. The other young woman, Kutan (and I lied when I said that she was Sookee’s sister), volunteered to act as the housemaid, arguing that she speaks Japanese better than Sookee does and that she had had experience as a maid. “Count Fujiwara” refused to alter his choice. So Sookee, the key to his plan, demanded an extra 100,000 for herself.
Okay, back to the present.
As a newcomer who sleeps in a separate area, Tamako does not really fit in with the other maids. At some point, one of them steals one of her shoes and they all giggle at her annoyance. She has to officially greet Lady Hideko with one foot bare. It is now in the light of day that she truly gets a good look at Lady Hideko and is struck by her beauty. But she tries to hide her emotions, and continue with the plan. After all, with the money, she can finally leave this stupid country.
Lady Hideko asks Tamako if she actually likes it in this house, semi-joking that her uncle has willed the sunshine away in order to keep his books in good condition. Tamako remains silent. Lady Hideko tries to read Tamako’s fake recommendation letter from her non-existent former mistress, Lady Minami. But Lady Hideko says that, after reading all of her uncle’s books, she is tired of reading and speaking Japanese, which is why she chooses to speak Korean to Tamako. She asks Tamako to read the letter. Tamako attempts to recite what “Count Fujiwara” had said the letter said, but she cannot remember it all, and admits, in Korean, that she can read neither Japanese nor Korean. Lady Hideko says that Tamako can still learn to read. She does not care Tamako swears or steals as long as she does not lie to her. She allows Tamako to pick from the maybe thirty pairs of shoes that she has, saying that wearing new pairs of shoes helps her deal with not having left the estate since she had arrived in Korea at age five. After picking a pair of gloves from what looks like a hundred pairs, Lady Hideko goes to reading practice alone, telling Sookee to come to the library building at noon.
With nothing to do for a while, Sookee goes through Lady Hideko’s room, looking at her belongings, trying on her clothes, and looking at herself in the mirror. One of the boxes has a rope. Just a rope. Is this the rope that Lady Hideko’s aunt used to hang herself? Sookee wonders what could cause her to do that as she passes by the cherry tree on her way to the library. Did living in this huge house drive her mad?
Tamako enters the library and sees Lady Hideko and Kouzuki on the far end of the main room. Lady Hideko tells her uncle that this is her new handmaiden. Tamako starts to walk towards them when Kouzuki yells at her about the snake on the floor.
Tamako looks down, screams, and steps back as Lady Hideko pulls a switch that closes a gate by the door, locking Tamako out of the main room. Lady Hideko and Kouzuki tell her that she is not to step beyond the snake that marks the bounds of knowledge. He takes a pill and…well, that is that.
Some time later, Okju is bathing Lady Hideko, who is sucking on a lollipop. “Count Fujiwara” is coming later that day and Okju says that her aunt always bathed her baby miss when a guest was coming, which is a half-truth. Okju calls Lady Hideko her Baby Miss, which makes Lady Hideko grin. Okju also tells her that her aunt gave the babies candy to make them think that bath time was sweet. Unfortunately, one of Lady Hideko’s sharpened back teeth keeps cutting into her. Okju decides to grind the tooth down using a thimble on her thumb. It goes on for a while…with neither speaking…and there is a moment. A moment where…okay, the tooth is smooth again.
“Count Fujiwara” arrives to…give Lady Hideko painting lessons. Sure. He also greets Okju, telling her that her failure would put him in an awkward position…as it was he who had served as a go-between between Lady Hideko and Okju’s previous mistress. Ahem. Later on, when they are alone “Count Fujiwara” tells Sookee that she must arrange for him and Lady Hideko to be alone once he says a codeword. Sookee says that Lady Hideko is so sheltered and naïve that she would not know what to do, so “Count Fujiwara” tells her that she must point out that Lady Hideko is in love with him, even if she does not realize it herself. He then gives her a box to give to Lady Hideko.
In her bedroom, Lady Hideko opens the box to find a pair of sapphire earrings. Wait. No. Okju notices that they are actually blue spinel, but quickly adds that spinels are also expensive. How does she know that? Lady Minami had taught her, of course. She helps dress up Lady Hideko and accompanies her to the dining room, where “Count Fujiwara” and Kouzuki are sitting. “Count Fujiwara” puts on a show of being mesmerized by Lady Hideko, which Sookee secretly scoffs at. At the same time, she is trying to hide her own subconscious growing attraction to Lady Hideko as well as her growing regret at having to tear her down so cruelly.
“Count Fujiwara” had kept offering wine to Lady Hideko during dinner, so she is rather tipsy by the time she and Okju go back to her room. Okju is about to undress her and put her in a new dress, but Lady Hideko has an idea. She has Okju undress and put on her fancy clothes, complete with the painfully restrictive undergarments to which Okju is not accustomed. Once done, Okju admires herself in the mirror. Lady Hideko admires her too, telling her that she also looks like a lady. Okju leaves the mirror and walks around to resume removing Lady Hideko’s dress. She silently says to herself that ladies are dolls to their maids, and that the buttons on Lady Hideko’s dress are for her amusement as Lady Hideko does the same to her. Okju asks if Lady Hideko is really going to marry her uncle. Lady Hideko replies that Kouzuki had raised her for such a purpose in order to access her fortune. Apparently, the proceeds from the gold mine would not cover the cost to bid on a collection of books from France that he wants. Okju comments that she would have sold the books for gold instead of the other way around.
Now that “Count Fujiwara” is here to give Lady Hideko painting lessons (and forge books for Kouzuki), she no longer has to read for him. As Lady Hideko looks outside the window, waiting for her art class, Sookee once again silently expresses sorrow that this poor little rich girl is falling for a fraud. A fraud who is deliberately late for class…just sitting outside the room doing nothing so that Lady Hideko can be anxious. Eventually, the lesson begins, and “Count Fujiwara” starts to not-so-subtly flirt with Lady Hideko as Tamako tries to hide her disgust at him. The lesson ends and he says the codeword. Tamako is surprised. So soon? Sookee is having some serious second thoughts about this whole thing. Whatever.
On one of their walks, Okju starts to repeat the lines that “Count Fujiwara” gave her to Lady Hideko in order to suggest that she is falling in love with him. Lady Hideko almost immediately changes the subject, asking Okju how her mother died. Okju tells her that her mother was hanged. Did she hang herself like Lady Hideko’s aunt? Yes, Okju nervously lies. Lady Hideko takes Okju’s arms and asks if her mother had hugged her a lot when she was still alive. She then tells Okju that her mother had died while giving birth to her, as if Baby Hideko’s first act of life was strangling her. Hideko says that she wishes that she had never been born. Okju takes hold of Hideko’s face and says that no baby is guilty of being born, that her mother would have told her that she was lucky to have her before dying if she could, and with no regrets. This little speech is, of course, based on what Miss Boksun said about Sookee’s mother before her execution. Okju then leaves Hideko alone to pick mushrooms as “Count Fujiwara” approaches.
“Count Fujiwara” and Hideko return to the house. Sookee eventually returns as well, but spies on them from outside. “Count Fujiwara” is putting his hands on Hideko, who is trying to hide her discomfort, but Sookee can see it. She barges into the house from the front door, which another servant exclaims is forbidden. But then Sookee PUTS ON a pair of shoes (which you do NOT do in Asian households, let alone fancy Asian houses) and stomps up the stairs, throwing her dish of mushrooms all over the place.
The next day, Hideko and “Count Fujiwara” go out to the woods for a painting lesson and Tamako tries in vain to passive-aggressively push back against the not-so-subtle hints to leave them alone. She finally runs to the house, gets the oils that “Count Fujiwara” told her to get, and runs back to the woods only to catch “Count Fujiwara” and Hideko kissing. “Count Fujiwara” seems unbothered, but Hideko stands up and looks at Tamako.
That night there is a blackout, putting a stop to the reading session that Hideko had with Kouzuki and a group of Japanese men. Sookee lies in bed, trying to think of a life of riches without having to think of anyone. Never having to think of
Hideko rings the bell. Okju does not get up. Hideko continues to ring the bell. It is not until the string that pulls on the bell breaks that Okju goes into Hideko’s bedroom. Holding a doll, Hideko scold Okju for not being there to greet her when she returned from the reading sessions, meaning that she had to change out of her clothes by herself. Okju apologizes, saying that she just have been asleep. Anticipating a nightmarish sleep, Hideko tells Okju to stay with her through the night. The both get in bed, back to back.
Still not looking at each other, Hideko tells Okju that “Count Fujiwara” had proposed to her, and that they will elope to Japan when Kouzuki visits his mine. She told him that she wasn’t sure, admitting to Okju that “Count Fujiwara” scares her. Okju replies that he is kind, but Hideko says that she feels something dangerous. She turns to Okju, who turns to her. Hideko asks her what men want after getting married…at night. How would someone who is practically a child know? A motherless child. Men want kisses, right?
Figuring that she will show her just one thing and then they will both go to sleep, Okju gets a lollipop and coats the entirety of her mouth with its sweetness. She then kisses Hideko. Curious that the lollipop suddenly tastes different, she kisses Hideko again. And again. Hideko asks her how she knows all of this. And Okju says that her friend Kutan had taught her. In words? Yes, only in words. They kiss one more time and that is that.
Nope. Hideko pulls Okju in again for a much longer and deeper kiss. When they pull away, they are breathing heavily. So this is how it feels, Hideko says. Okju replies, with desperate swiftness, that this is what it will feel like when she is with her husband. Hideko asks if he will think that he is making love to a corpse. They keep up the charade that they are talking about “Count Fujiwara” as they begin touching each other and then have sex.
It is around here where the movie starts to take a turn.
As with a few films that I talked about in this series, I find it quite difficult to talk about certain aspects of The Handmaiden without entering spoiler territory. Going into this movie, all I knew about it was that it was a period piece about an affair between the lady and her handmaiden. I figured, from the trailers, that it would a bit baroque and lurid in the heightened hyper-realistic way that Park Chan-wook films tend to be. And I was right. I had not known until after watching the movie that it was loosely based on the novel Fingersmith, which was written by Welsh author Sarah Waters and set in Victorian-era Britain. I had an inkling that the movie involved the Japanese occupation of Korea, but I had no idea about the con artist angle. And, there are few other surprising aspects that I merely hint at here.
Sidenote: the Korean title of this movie translates to Lady. I am not sure whether that means the class title or whether that means lady as in women, but it nevertheless interesting that the English title focuses explicitly on the character of Sookee rather than Hideko or either of them. The title of The Handmaiden does, however, directly relate back to the novel’s title of Fingersmith, which was a term for thief as well as a double entendre…or triple, since Sookee’s counterpart went by the name Sue Smith. And then there is Hideko almost always wearing gloves over her hands.
Anyways, there is a generally constant set of themes that run through the main characters and plotlines. There is the theme of identity. It comes in many forms: the ambiguous, the assumed, the authentic, the fake, the fluid, the ignored, the imposed, the irrelevant, the performative, the precarious, the secret, the unclear. And everything is mixed up.
This movie plays with assumptions and expectations, sometimes leaving more questions than answers. To an extent, every character is lying or hiding something. It can be small, like the other servants not being as submissive when they think that Hideko cannot hear them. It can be big, like Sookee having three identities. It can be massive, like the lengths that “Count Fujiwara” went to create his fake identity. It can ridiculous, like Kouzuki practically convincing himself that he is a Japanese aristocrat and being portrayed by an actor with questionably realistic old-man makeup. But others have secrets too, even Sasaki and, yes, Hideko. And even as Sookee keeps up the act of being kind towards Hideko, there is a growing desire within her for that kindness to be real, if under a very different context. Yet, she cannot bring herself to cross that line, not on her own. The con must continue. Their true selves must be repressed to fit into their roles. To keep massive secrets and lie to the point of self-deception are expected, encouraged, required; just don’t talk about it.
Fingersmith features moments that reveal that Victorian England is homophobic. There is not really anything similar in The Handmaiden. Audiences, of course, are to assume that that is the case, and the movie presents Japanese-occupied Korea as being heteronormative. There is a hint that homosexuality is not a completely unknown concept, but it is unclear how much it is known beyond a very confined context. I should note that the movie is filled with people, it has largely moved away from the large cast of characters that the novel had, focusing primarily on Sookee, Hideko, the fake Count, Kouzuki, and to a lesser extent, Sasaki. Things are hidden and even expected to remain hidden, as Lady Hideko’s hands in gloves.
Sookee and Hideko get some backstory, but none of it really takes a stand on their sexuality. What is clear is that Sookee is attracted to Hideko from the moment that she sees her clearly. Her mentioning that Kutan taught her about kissing may lead to questions about Sookee’s prior relationship to Kutan. When “Count Fujiwara” was first outlining his plan, Kutan may have looked like she was smitten with him, but she also asked multiple times whether Hideko was pretty. Was she asking due to her own feelings towards the fake Count or because she genuinely wanted to know? Yeah, it is a stretch, as she does genuinely come across as smitten with him, but anything is possible. As for Hideko, it becomes clear that she is not as taken with “Count Fujiwara” as she sometimes lets on, but is it because she can sense that he is a scumbag, is she uncomfortable with his persistent advances, or because she does not actually really like men in that way?
Well, that is just it. To this society, it does not matter what women really want. Their futures are set out for them and they are expected to behave in certain ways. Their own desires are irrelevant. “Count Fujiwara” seems to believe that he can have any woman he chooses. Is it through seduction or merely his manipulative projection of power, though? It is all the same to him. Yet, Sookee hates his guts from the beginning. He does not care, though. He knows that she is greedy enough to go through with the plan and that is enough for him. And the only reason why he makes this effort to woo Hideko instead of just asking Kouzuki for her hand in marriage is that he needs to coax her away from her uncle, who wants to marry her himself for her fortune. Certainly, Kouzuki has absolutely no interest in what she thinks, feels, needs, or wants. While it is already a given from the get-go, heteronormativity is a means of enforcing men’s dominance over women and women’s dependence on men. I will circle back to this issue later.
The issues of nationality and class also get mixed up in this movie. This movie takes place in the 1930s, which means that Japan has been in control of Korea for at least twenty years. During those twenty years Korean culture has been denigrated and papered over, replaced with Japanese culture. So Koreans had to frequently speak Japanese, take on Japanese names, and behave in Japanese manners. And all the while, they are reminded of their lower status as subjugated Koreans. As Okju and Tamako, the bitterly cynical Sookee has to act anxious and unsure of herself on top of being servile. That is the way of the Korean under Japanese rule. There were, however, ways around that.
One way for Koreans to have a high place in the society was to collaborate with the Japanese occupation. As I had mentioned in my write-up on the movie Parasite, many high-class families in contemporary South Korea either attained their status or had it cemented thanks to collaborating with the occupation, and the Americans did little to shake up the class status quo when it kicked out the Japanese and took their place. I may have to eat my words later, but Kouzuki appears to be a rather extreme example. Even before his official introduction, he is presented as a scumbag who achieved his status through corruption and was among the first Koreans to aid the Japanese takeover of his country. Associating Korea with weakness and Japan with strength, he does not just mimic the Japanese as a survival tactic; he wishes to be Japanese. He even fancies himself Japanese. Whether the actual Japanese people treat him with respect is…again…not entirely clear in the movie, though they seem civil enough towards him in the circumstances that we do see. He has at least enough clout to marry a woman from a noble Japanese family lord over her like she is dirt, and do the same to her Japanese niece. Is it because man’s domination over woman takes priority over Japan’s domination over Korea? Or just because these particular set of circumstances allow him to be Japanese enough to have power over these women who are not considered particularly important in the grand scheme of things?
Another way to climb up the ranks is through outright fraud. We never learn the fake Count’s real name. We do know, however, of his origins as the son of a farmhand and a shaman, which I guess could be an unintentional (or intentional) dig at the Park administration. Whatever illusions he may have about himself, he has no illusions over whether he is Japanese; he just fakes it until he makes it. We learn later that preparation for this scam has taken him a lot of time and effort that maybe could have been spent trying to get the same amount of money some other way. But whatever.
A third way is through adoption. Legal adoption? Well, definitely through illegal adoption. One of the ways that Sookee’s gang makes money is acquiring abandoned babies and selling them to high class Japanese families. She assumes that they will be raised as Japanese ladies and gentlemen, though there is no guarantee that they will not simply be used as servants. But if she is correct, then that is a way for these lowly Koreans to live as both high class and Japanese. And they will probably not even know their origins. Of course, like with the fake Count, this requires them to pass as Japanese. So the line between Korean and Japanese has been blurred so much that it might as well be arbitrary. Not through blood, birthplace, homeland, language, sentiment; no definition is definite. And, yet, the occupation has to pretend that the line is clear, important, and necessary to enforce through brutal oppression and social erasure. To keep massive secrets and lie to the point of self-deception are expected, encouraged, required; just don’t talk about it.
I noticed only two men in the movie who was Korean through and through. One was a member of Miss Boksun’s gang and he had trouble speaking. It is a very small role and he was not very important to the story. The other was the guy who carried Kouzumi from the main house to the library. And we do not even see his face.
So the main men in the story, both Korean, treated being Japanese as a means to power. To dominance. To live as men. I believe that all of the servants in the house that we saw were women except for that one man…unless the driver was another man. There were male servants in Fingersmith, and two had pretty major roles. While few of the other servants in The Handmaiden have major parts, the women are seen much more often. And they are all Korean, regardless of what language they speak. In speaking Korean, Hideko distances herself from her heritage and its dominating ways. Being Japanese may have helped the Korean men, but not her, an actual Japanese woman. Just like the Koreans, she finds herself under dominion.
Being Japanese by blood does not really help Hideko much. She is under the thumb of her uncle, who is Korean regardless of his attitude. She may live in a fancy house, wear fancy clothes, and have dozens of servants whom she can abuse, but she has been trapped in this gilded cage since she was a child. What is Japan to her? A memory, perhaps once fond, now gone. A mother whom she never knew. An aunt that was taken away from her. A tree that took her aunt. An estate that she cannot leave. What is the Japanese language? It is the language that her hated uncle speaks. It is the language of those books that he forces her to read for him and his Japanese friends. It is the language that her servants speak when they are lying to her. All of her connections to her Japanese identity are either severed, useless, or negative. Her identity as Japanese has been forced upon her as it has been forced upon Koreans. It is not entirely clear how she learned to understand and speak Korean, but it appears that she has grown to prefer to speak Korean over Japanese. So, while the other servants all speak Japanese to her, she converses in Korean with Tamako.
Of course, not all of these decisions are simply for the benefit of the movie’s themes. This is, after all, a Korean movie made with Korean people by Korean people for a Korean audience. So, while there is a lot of Japanese dialogue, there could have, theoretically, been much more had Tamako and Hideko spoken Japanese to each other instead of Korean. It is, however, easier for the scriptwriters to have them speak more Korean. It is easier for the actors who carry the movie to speak Korean. And it is easier for the Korean audiences to identify with the main Japanese lead if she both speaks Korean and generally distances herself from her Japanese-ness, while despising the Korean con artist who tries to trick her as well as the Korean collaborator who tries to remake himself into another Japanese oppressor. So, she is Japanese, but not Japanese Japanese.
It is, thus, understandable, but still a little ironic that a movie about Koreans pretending to be Japanese has its main Japanese character be played by a Korean. It does help the audience gain sympathy for Hideko to have her portrayed by 17-year veteran Kim Min-hee, though…yes, this movie was released around the time reports emerged about her relationship with married director Hong Sang-soo. Aaaanyways, despite the insistence that it is easy to distinguish different Asian nationalities by just looking, Korean audiences seem to be perfectly fine with seeing Koreans portray Japanese and Chinese people in their movies. There are a few names in the credits that look Japanese, but I cannot read Korean or Japanese enough to find out who they played and translated credits list only one Japanese actor who was barely on screen and, to my knowledge, had no lines.
I can be certain, however, that the house that forms the center of this story is actually in Japan. Yes, this Korean movie set in Japanese-occupied Korea was filmed in Japan. At least more in Japan than the movie suggested. I had not mentioned it before, as it turns out to not be that textually relevant to the story, but one of the first things that Sasaki says to Okju is that the design of the house is half-Japanese and half-English. She also says that there is nothing like it in Japan, even though, in real life, that house, named Rokkaen was built in Japan in around 1913 and designed by British architect Josiah Conder. Why was this particular house chosen to be the setting for the movie? Perhaps its mixed style was to show how the Japanese themselves were adopting foreign cultural influences as they were imposing their own upon Korea. Perhaps it was meant to be a metaphor for the mixing of identities. Perhaps it was meant to be a shoutout to British setting of the original novel. It would be a little weird if it was simply the latter reason, as the house in the novel was kind of run-down and in a state of decay, similar to Kouzuki’s counterpart; the main reason why he had his niece read the books in the first place was because his eyes were failing him. There is no similar reason given in the movie; just a show of dominance. And the house in the movie looks pretty cool. And clean, which is why it is a bit of a deal when Okju stomps up the stairs with her shoes on and tosses the mushrooms all over the place. The only real sign that Kouzuki’s life is not one of absolute power is that his government-approved access to electricity occasionally bumps up against blackouts. Indeed, the changes to the story and the nature of the production has led to a few intentional and unintentional ironies.
And that leads me to…
I will start by saying that, with a budget of approximately $8.8 million, this movie made $31.5 million in South Korea and made another $5.9 million internationally. It opened at number one in South Korea and was the ninth most popular movie overall in South Korea for 2016, including Hollywood releases in South Korea. Sure, other South Korean movies from that year like The Wailing, The Age of Shadows, and Train to Busan had similar budgets and made significantly more money. But, hey, The Handmaiden beat out Zootopia. And of the Korean movies on that top ten list, only Train to Busan beat The Handmaiden’s $2 million take from the USA by about $123,000, and the other movies did not come close to either one. So, no, The Handmaiden’s $38 million worldwide take cannot compare with Train to Busan’s $93 million worldwide take, but it was still a mainstream success on top of being critically acclaimed. And I, for one, really liked it.
But was that mainstream success worth what was done to it? While I am definitely not qualified to talk about this, I feel like it would be cowardly to try to completely dodge the issue. So, here I am…starting the conversation, as they say.
I guess that I should start with the issue that everyone had been talking about at the time: the sex scenes. There had been some controversy over the movie’s explicit scenes between Tamako and Hideko. I am not sure of the extent of the complaints, but I saw the word “pornographic” thrown around a few times. I cannot say if the controversy was a big as it was for Blue Is The Warmest Colour three years earlier, but…I have not seen that movie either, so it is not for me to judge anyways. Now, technically, pornography is illegal in South Korea, but I have seen a few South Korean movies that were about as hardcore as softcore could get. These movies, I am sure, were also the subject of controversy, but did not get as much mainstream attention as The Handmaiden did. That said, I did at one point think to myself that “this was a bit much” while watching a particular scene in this movie. But this is a Park Chan-wook film. What would you expect other than a bit much? Well, that in itself is the issue.
I have read that Park Chan-wook made serious efforts to ensure that Kim Min-hee and relative newcomer Kim Tae-ri were in a comfortable and safe environment when filming the sex scenes. I cannot say whether it was enough, but I would not expect that level of care from a director like Kim Ki-duk. Ugh. But why Park Chan-wook in the first place? Why not a female director? A lesbian director?
Well, I am no expert on the Korean film industry, but I know of only two gay film directors. Both of them are men, and none of their films had much mainstream success, though a movie or two were well received by critics. I know of a few female directors but, again, only a few made movies with mainstream success. Maybe one of those directors is a lesbian, but I have found so little information about them that I have no idea. At the risk of being the pot calling the kettle black, the Korean film industry is male dominated and heteronormative.
Actually, I did find out about one lesbian South Korean director. And…um…well, she was found guilty of sexual assault in 2018 and “retired” from directing after that. So…
At the risk of once again being the pot calling the kettle black, South Korea was a rather socially conservative nation in 2016 as well as politically conservative. Acceptance of homosexuality and LGBTQ+ rights are ever so slowly moving in the right direction, but nowhere near quickly as K-pop fans on Youtube seem to suggest. That said, while The Handmaiden maybe the first big South Korean movie to focus on homosexuality, homosexuality is hardly new to South Korean movies. Heck, it is not even the first South Korean movie starring Kim Min-hee that dealt with homosexuality. It has been portrayed before. And not just negatively, but positively, or at least neutrally. But, of course, the issue of homosexuality is just as often a small part of the movie. Or the movie itself is quite low-budget and extremely niche. If there were to be a South Korean adaptation of Fingersmith, it may have been well-received by some critics, but it would have been small and remembered by only a few people.
And yet, that was not the case. It was huge. No, not Train to Busan huge, but big. It was a luscious sweeping epic, very much unlike the 3-hour BBC miniseries which was, by the way, directed by an Irish woman named Aisling Walsh. There had been 1,500 applicants for the role of Sookee, and Kim Tae-ri was chosen to pretty much carry this 145-minute film for her feature-length debut. This would not have happened without the clout of someone like Park Chan-wook and this movie was financially successful even by his standards. But did it sacrifice something along the way? One may argue about whether or not the explicit nature of the sex scene betrayed the male gaze of the director, but that is just the most obvious aspect of the controversy. I am not sure what the percentage is, but there have been readers of the book who viewed it as being about women finding a place for themselves and each other away from the prying eyes and controlling hands of the patriarchy, a place to finally be themselves and learn to become themselves. No matter how sensitive and gentle and respectful Park Chan-wook may have been during the production, he still ultimately held the creative reigns. Korean manhood may be largely absent from the film itself, but it looms large behind the scenes. His heart may be in the right place, but his heart may not be what matters here. If one calls the movie a fundamental perversion and betrayal of the source material simply by virtue of its production…well…I don’t know if I can say that that is not the case. And it would not be my place to even attempt to do so regardless.
But, hey, this would not be the first problematic movie that I have featured in this series, and previous movies were most likely made by directors who did not necessarily mean well.
So…yeah. I like the movie.
WTF ASIA 113: The Legend of Bhagat Singh (India: 2002, approx. 150-156 minutes)
WTF ASIA 114: Twenty-four Eyes (Japan: 1954, approx. 156 minutes)