The Handmaiden averts the “male gaze” in its portrayal of women
Two of the steamiest scenes in the lavish erotic caper The Handmaiden are also among its least graphic, at least visually.
In both, the young heiress Lady Hideko reads Sadean literary pornography to an audience of male noblemen whom she clearly despises, leaving the entire group with an almighty case of blue balls.
Notwithstanding that this most opulently art-directed and explicit of films relies on the spoken word to achieve a peak erotic (and comic) moment, director Park Chan-Wook is trafficking in another, deeper irony here, since the situation on-screen is almost certainly being mirrored in the audience.
If you’re a straight, male viewer, either of these sequences is likely to have you feeling turned-on and pathetic in about equal measure.
Speaking through a translator during a call from Toronto in September, the South Korean filmmaker laughs at the idea.
“Well, thank you,” he says, “and that’s the answer I’ll now use for the feminists!”
Indeed, director Park entered sensitive territory when he adapted Sarah Waters’s lesbian-themed novel Fingersmith, about an affair (relocated by the filmmaker from Victorian Britain to ’30s Korea) between Hideko and a pickpocket, Sook-Hee, who’s been dispatched by a con artist to pose as her handmaiden.
While it was met with wild acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, the movie, opening Friday (November 11), also took some heat over its sexual politics.
“I tried to make sure that this film does not come across as all about the male gaze in the way that it portrays female sexuality,” protests Park, with a sigh.
“I would appreciate it when people ask these questions if they could refer to a specific shot or specific element that made them think that way, because at least the feminists and the lesbian community I sought advice from in Korea, they said that they didn’t feel it was an issue in the script.”
It might be more constructive to refer to the two bravura set pieces described above. Raised to read erotica by her wealthy uncle, who has also adopted her for his bride, Hideko uses her relationship with handmaiden Sook-Hee as only one strategy in her covert bid for liberation.
“Those reading sessions, in a way, if you think about it, are a kind of a gang rape,” offers director Park. “But you have to pay attention to Hideko’s attitude. In that first reading, she inserts herself into the imaginations of those so-called gentlemen, those fuckers sitting in the audience.
“She is almost a great diva in this moment, and these men are overwhelmed by her performance.
“And in the second reading,” continues the filmmaker, “she’s looking at the inside of herself, she’s imagining having sex with Sook-Hee while she’s reading this book. Despite the fact that Hideko is forced to partake in these readings, she’s dealing with it in her own terms.”
Speaking of terms, every viewer has their own. Park realizes there’s only one way forward with such heavily charged material. “I can’t just keep being concerned or scared of what people might think,” he says. “When it comes down to it, I had to do what I wanted to do with this film.”