To me, The Handmaiden is a magnum opus, an erotic victory, a whiplash of passion and deceit that paints on rich imagery, tightly holding its plot together.
The primary theme broached by Welsh writer, Sarah Waters, is the kind of liberation that women can find only through each other. In the 1990s, Waters wrote a doctoral dissertation on lesbian and gay historical fiction. Since then she has also developed the genre: her first book was Tipping the Velvet (Victorian euphemism for cunnilingus). Waters’ plots focus on ploys of concealment and redefinition; they are not always linked directly to female sexuality, but emphasize the thematic importance of the subject.
It’s beautiful, then, to see a man being so faithful to the elements of Water’s novel Fingersmith in his film adaptation. Park Chan- wook’s The Handmaiden, transfers the book’s tale of obfuscation and patriarchal supremacy, originally set in 19th century England, to Korea in the 1930s.
The film is divided into three parts and revolves around 4 characters:
- Kouzouki, a sadistic nobleman;
- his niece, Hideko, an ice-cold lady;
- the Count, a conman; and,
- Tamako, an ambitious maid.
Kouzouki fetishizes Japanese culture and keeps a porn library. Possibly the worst of his many hateful practices is to lick his paintbrushes until his tongue is black as a chow dog’s. He has groomed his niece Hideko to be his future wife, asking her to wear royal dresses and read erotica aloud to ‘gentlemanly’ perverts. The Count schemes to marry Hideko, take over her inheritance and put her in a madhouse. He slyly makes his way that wins him the entrance to Kouzouki’s estate. Along the way, he creates a network of baby-sellers and petty robbers. One of these thieves is Tamako, whom the Count enlists as a mistress. She is assigned to Hideko at the beginning of the film to be her new maid. However, the schemes are reversed when Hideko and Tamako sink in love.
We learn that Tamako is only her Japanese name while her real name is- Sook-hee. Personally, I feel the name given to her before she steps into the house furthers itself as a blossoming that will soon be seen. It acts more as a string forcibly broken and not as much a master’s rule, the testament to this is only an abstract string broken instantly between her life as a con-artist and as Hideko’s lover.
Their relationship develops through a fetishistic trope: mother and baby, mistress and maid, doll and girl.
In one scene, Tamako bathes Hideko saying: “You’re my baby-miss”, and she watched Hideko suck on a sweet, dark lollipop. When Hideko worries about a sharp tooth, Tamako runs for a thimble, and files her tooth down as the atmosphere takes on a more sensual tone. Here, Hideko appears submissive, her jaw dropping while she gazes directly at Tamako’s lips and the sweat that rests below it. Both focus on her finger going in and out of Hideko’s mouth.
Having portrayed his male characters as unconscious hostages of their own attachments, Park spends a significant amount of time fabricating the free inner world of Hideko and Tamako. Weaving their sex scenes across all three chapters of the film, Park exposes the characters’ complexities that would otherwise have remained disappointingly unnoticed.
As the film progresses, we realize that the power-play between the two women symbolizes the shifting outlook that the narrative structure allows us to experience.
A mystery lies in the essence of The Handmaiden’s sex scenes, the juxtaposition of the Uncle’s sexual readings on the one hand and the tactile eroticism of the women on the other. Where the former promotes a dissatisfied, isolated enthusiasm among the male aristocratic crowd, the latter surpasses the spoken word by translating it into a passionate, living fact. This truth is one that the aristocrats can only glimpse from their agitated imaginations, and with the assistance of a mechanized wooden doll, which Hideko mounts on cue when lowered from the ceiling.
What is surprising is that male sexuality in the film is represented as frozen and obscene in contrast to the eroticism and intimacy of the two women. It’s because the director shows sexuality as a tool of domination. The male gaze is shown as an unwelcome voyeurism and lacks an understanding of women.
At one point in the film, Hideko questions innocently- “Tell me, what do men want at night?
The symbolism of white gloves
The film is scattered with motifs, one of them being the gloves Hideko dons throughout. From the very first task carried out by Tamako, Hideko, unspeaking and dissatisfied, observes all the glove drawers Tamako opens and chooses a white one from the last, possibly to do the most in conveying her supposed naivete and virginity. Hideko is at her most vulnerable and intimate with Tamako, with the gloves off and when on, she’s deceptive of her true self. Gloves have been a major part of the Historical Fiction genre, they symbolize the elegance of upper-class society, appearances (particularly, in this movie) and a subtle eroticism in the act of the removal and shifting of silks and laces over hands. Coming to hands, which is also another essential aspect of the film.
Hideko’s life before Tamako was entirely groomed to fulfill the fantasies of men. She was made unable to embrace her natural sexuality. The exchanges between Hideko and Tamako, when unexplored in sex are limited to hands, carried out with absolute tenderness and gently intense protection.
In a scene where they undress each other- Tamako understands the sexual inefficiency of a lady’s costume: “All these buttons are for my enjoyment,” she thinks. During sex with Hideko, Tamako insists that she is performing on the part of the Count, she gasps out her dream of breastfeeding her mistress.
They both invoke in me an image of two swans unfurling in love and warmth. The walls of the stone-cold castle witness a haven, of wet hot-springs that reek of love.
Climax and the finale
Their love makes them confess to each other about the Count’s plan to take over Hideko’s wealth. They decide to play along with him. When Hideko’s uncle goes out for a week’s tour. Hideko and the Count elope and get married, while Tamako is with them too. The Count plans to put Tamako in a madhouse and admits she’s going to die soon. However, as planned with Hideko, Tamako hires a friend to spark a fire in the asylum and escapes in the confusion that ensues.
In the meantime, Hideko seduces the Count and poisons his wine with opium. She escapes while he is knocked out and meets Tamako.
Both disguise themselves to beat the city. In the meantime, Uncle Kouzuki returns and figures out that the Count has eloped with his “piggy bank.” He sets out on a search party for both his niece and the Count. The henchmen catch hold of him and take him to Kouzuki.
Revengeful Kouzuki starts to torment him by hacking off his fingertips. Much like the opium drops that Hideko offers, he has three green-colored cigarettes in his case, poisoned with mercury. He fools Kouzuki to let him smoke. The gaseous mercury poisons both, and they die.
The film ends with Hideko and Tamako making love, soaked in freedom.
The unbridled fetishism and perversion of the male gaze
The film has a rather interesting connection with fetishism. We see that fetishism is a pessimistic and sometimes cruel trait; it is what defines the uncle. Kouzuki gathers up-to-date fetishes in the form of erotica, and later we also find his collection of mutilated and preserved portions of human genitalia. Both the count and the uncle perish in the “basement,” a hellish sanctuary of perversion.
Is fetishism evil? Conditionally, it is harmless, but the nature of it that we are dealing with here is true evil disguised as royalty, power and knowledge.
One of the most effective scenes in the film is where Tamako is destroying several books in the uncle’s library. I believe that this means that the 2 women have regained their eroticism and thereby broken, physically and psychologically, its control over them. Therefore, it is understandable, that the term fetish represents not only sexual fascination but also objects of religious importance or idolatry.
The destruction of books by Tamako and the striking of the snake sculpture at the library’s entrance is especially symbolic. We can see the snake as phallic, and thus the cutting off of its head may be interpreted clearly as a political act.
In an earlier scene, the Uncle discusses how the serpent marks the “bounds of knowledge” – referring to the biblical tale of Adam and Eve. In this context, we are reminded that women are seen to have perpetrated the original sin, that society is essentially continuously paying the price of women’s failures.
But Hideko and Tamako’s love and courage scream- Fuck that!