Hello dear friends and welcome back to Sapphic Cinema, the column series where if you can’t say something nice, fast forward to the sex scene. This week we are discussing 2016’s The Handmaiden, a film which enjoyed universal acclaim prior to this review, but which will now have to get by with universal minus one.
Part of what Sapphic Cinema is about, to the extent that it is about anything, is building a framework for the criticism and appreciation of lesbian movies outside a heterosexual paradigm. In discussing films that have been ignored or panned by mainstream critics, I believe we can reclaim our cinematic heritage and argue for a set of narrative values all our own. Gay men have already done this with camp, an aesthetic which fought its way up from the lowbrow to the highest tiers of academic consideration.
If queer women have an aesthetic, it has so far gone unnamed, but to myself, I always call it “flannel.” It’s warm, soft, unpretentious, intimate, and usually uncool. I think appreciating it, if you yourself are not a queer woman, requires a radical de-prioritization of the the male gaze, which many critics are unable to achieve. I’ve made my peace with that, and if lesbian movies never get the appreciation they deserve in my lifetime, then I am content to build this island away from popular opinion. It’s nice here. You are here. That is usually enough.
Nevertheless, I will admit that on those rare occasions when a lesbian film (by which, it bears repeating, I mean a film depicting a romantic relationship between queer women of any stripe) garners some attention from the Critics On High, I get excited. I want so much for our films to earn awards, to be taken seriously, to be considered Important. Those metrics of success have real-world consequences in normalizing our relationships, exposing more people to them, and making it easier to secure funding for future films. But all too often, the lesbian films that actually earn this coveted seal of approval are the ones that speak least to me as a queer woman, and I end up feeling less understood than when I was merely ignored.
I’m thinking of two recent films, specifically. One, Blue Is The Warmest Color, I can’t write about, because I physically cannot make myself finish watching it. The other is The Handmaiden, a 2016 drama that made the critics sigh with rapture and made me sigh with resignation.
The Handmaiden is based on Sarah Waters’ gloriously labyrinthine Victorian crime novel, Fingersmith (or as I call it, Oliver Fist). The BBC adaptation of the original novel will get a Sapphic Cinema of its own, but I’ll also refer to it here as the much more faithful adaptation of the source material.
The Handmaiden takes Fingersmith’s story from Victorian England to 1930’s Korea, under Japanese occupation. The change of setting does nothing to detract from the story, and the enthusiasm with which director Park Chan-Wook renders the countryside and costumes are the great joy of this film.
BEAUTIFUL, CHARMING, WISH YOU WERE HERE, ETC.
Here we meet Sook-Hee (whom you may know as “Sue”), who makes her living tending to unwanted babies and fencing stolen property in a slum. As in the original, she is approached by a handsome, devious conman (known here as The Count) who proposes an elaborate scheme to seduce a wealthy heiress away from her controlling uncle, steal her fortune, and lock her in a madhouse.
As before, Sook-Hee poses as the rich girl’s (Hideko, a marked improvement over “Maude”) maid, planning to push her into the Count’s arms. But things get more complex when Sook-Hee falls for Hideko.
HOW’S THAT WORKING OUT FOR YA?
Except she doesn’t fall for Hideko in any way that is recognizable to me as a queer woman. She falls like a man: anatomically, for her body, not for the totality of her character.
I am willing to make allowances for a possible cultural disconnect between myself as an American viewer and these Asian actors. But I can’t help it. I find Hideko’s uncle’s shouted dialogue to be cartoonish rather than truly frightening. And I find the way Sook-Hee erupts into gales of laughter whenever she is nervous to be, above all, irritating. It’s hard for me to accept the truth of a love story when that love expresses itself in a physical language I don’t understand.
Sook-Hee tries to convince Hideko to run away with the Count, which chiefly involve telling her her toenails are growing faster.
YEAH WE DON’T HAVE THAT IN AMERICA.
But in spite of herself, Sook-Hee finds herself tortured by thoughts of her mistress, and one night, Hideko begs her to teach her all about sex.
SO STEP ONE, OBVIOUSLY: LOLLIPOP.
The Handmaidenx‘s sex scene was, like Blue is The Warmest Color, hugely lauded for its graphic “realism;” but there’s nothing real about it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, 69in and scissoring are “things” but they’re graduate level shit, and the movie has these two going straight for it on their first night.
After the sex, Sook-Hee briefly experiences some qualms about throwing an innocent woman into an insane asylum, but still allows Hideko to flee to Japan and elope. Once there, the tables are turned and TWIST: Sook-Hee is thrown into the asylum instead!
It turns out Hideko and the Count were plotting together all along! From there we backtrack to Hideko’s childhood, in which her evil uncle forced her to read pornography for an audience of all his fellow smut enthusiasts.
IT’S NOT GAY IF WE ALL SIT SUPER FAR APART FROM EACH OTHER.
IT’S ALL GAY. ALL OF IT.
And when mere words would not suffice, there was a dramatic re-enactment, complete with puppet.
CIRQUE DE NO WAY.
This cruel education was conducted with the unwilling cooperation of Hideko’s aunt, who, it is strongly implied, was raped by an octopus. After a few years of this, Hideko’s aunt hangs herself from the cherry tree. It is very sad, but like everthing else in the film it is also very beautiful, and trying to make some sort of vague statement about Japanese-Korean history.
At one of the porn readings—which Park Chan-Wook himself has said are an indictment of the male gaze and the spiritual equivalent of a gang rape for Hideko—the Count appears.
He takes Hideko aside and reveals that he had originally planned to seduce her and throw her in a madhouse, but is now scrapping that plan because she is obviously disinterested in boning him. Instead, he proposes to hire a naïve thief to pose as her handmaiden, and throw her in the asylum instead.
Then we see the entire events of the first act unfold once more through Hideko’s eyes. Hideko, obviously, is predisposed to dislike Sook-Hee. But, as so often happens, your mind can know that the hot girl intends to steal your fortune and forcibly commit you, but all your heart knows is that she tastes like lollipops and is a talented amateur dentist.
TALE AS OLD AS TIME.
So once again they do it (extended version this time) but afterwards, knowing Sook-Hee intends to betray her, Hideko tries to take her life on the very same cherry tree her aunt used. But then: DOUBLE TWIST: Sook-Hee rushes to save her and confess everything. And then Hideko confesses that she knew Sook-Hee’s plan all along, and was planning to triple-cross her! Sook-Hee is so confused she drops Hideko, who nearly dies of excessive plot twists.
So, in the original Fingersmith, this part doesn’t happen. Sue really does get committed and is super pissed and plans to fucking murder Maude when she is released. And honestly I think that’s the stronger story, because it gives Maude a chance to step in Sue’s shoes, and lets the audience hang out in a terrifying Victorian madhouse for a few chapters. But this version pretty much glosses over that, as well as the subplot involving Sue and Maude being switched at birth. In place of that, we have lots of scenes of the Count vainly smoking cigarettes.
It really bothers me that we miss out on the whole Mrs. Sucksby plot in The Handmaiden, because of the crucial way that plot reframes the whole story as being an elaborate machination between women, in which men only think they are pulling the strings. This film tries to give Sook-Hee and Hideko the same sense of agency, but by centering the Count, it ends up only reenacting the same male gaze it thinks it’s criticizing (and I am far from the first critic to make this observation). The original plot, with all its reversals and reveals, also makes a much stronger statement about British conceptions of class, which this film wants full marks for merely alluding to.
At any rate, Hideko finally gets her revenge on her uncle by destroying his books, in a scene that I know is supposed to feel triumphant, but kind of makes me sad.
TRASH A LIBRARY FOR FEMINISM.
I mean, the books were used to torture her, but that’s not really their fault, is it? Don’t punish the smut, is all I’m saying.
Of course, for Hideko and Sook-Hee to be reunited, The Count must be disposed of. Hideko tries to poison his drink but he won’t drink it so she SPITS THE DRINK IN TO HIS MOUTH, which he luckily finds erotic, rather than suspicious.
WINE SPITTING IS HOW LESBIANS DO IT. I PROMISE, I READ IT IN A BOOK.
He is knocked unconscious, and shortly picked up by Uncle Pervo’s goons. The Count is then is taken to the octopus torture dungeon, where he poisons both himself and Uncle Pervo with mercury-laced cigarettes. (No word on what happens to the octopus.)
After that, Sook-Hee and Hideko board a steamship to Russia (WHY) and engage in one final act of lovemaking. And if you thought the sex marathon in the middle of the film was crazy, it’s nothing to this one. Early on in the film, during one of the porn readings, Hideko shares the tale of lesbian lovers who insert bells into their vaginas and scissor with them in. During the scene, you’re like “man, this illustrates so well the weird shit men think lesbians do in bed, and the weird male gaze-y ness of lesbian porn.” BUT THEN THEY DO IT. FIRST CHANCE THE GET, THEY STICK THESE MASSIVE SILVER BALLS (WHERE DID THEY GET THEM FROM?) IN THEIR VAGINAS AND SCISSOR UNTIL THEY PLAY CAROL OF THE BELLS.
JINGLE BELL ROCK.
As I hope you have gleaned from these screenshots, The Handmaiden is one of the most visually exquisite films I have ever seen, and its masterfully composed shots and bold camera movements are worth every dollop of praise that has been heaped upon them.
“But Elaine!” (you say in my imagination) “I thought you didn’t like this movie!” Well that’s not to say I don’t appreciate its visual beauty, it’s just that it’s not the quality I most connect with when watching a film. Enjoying the canon of lesbian film means finding the beauty in films that are quite ugly, as long as they contain emotional truth. I can sit through grainy footage, hideous costumes, and a cringeworthy soundtrack just to see one honest moment of connection between two women. And that, for all its highly polished glory, The Handmaiden can’t give me. It’s all silk and no flannel.
Sex Scenes: Two? I mean, one, but from different angles. They both include this shot though:
Quality of Sex Scenes: Four out of four twelve year-old boys agree: this is definitely how lesbians do it.
Eventual Fate of central couple: I mean they’re going to Vladivostok but Hideko just throws her fake mustache and wedding ring over the side of the steamship! Aren’t you going to need those??
How Many Times Have You Watched It, Elaine?: About fifty fewer times than I have watched Fingersmith.