The Handmaiden (2016) by Park Chan-wook
Personal Essay / Review by Naomi Sandiego
Warning: Review contains spoilers.
The Handmaiden has best been described as “Korean Gothic lesbian revenge thriller” and has been not so eloquently described by a series of enthusiastic hand gestures and incoherent noises of delight. The latter description is my own.
I will start by saying that as a bisexual woman, I have consumed quite the abundance of LGBT and queer media. Movies, books, tv shows, fanfiction, music, art, podcasts, you name it. I’ve consumed it. I will also say that only a fraction of this media is actually any good and it breaks my heart. In particular, films with queer protagonists seem to let me down the most. Your standard queer film tends to have the following formula:
- Your main protagonist meets their mysterious love interest of the same sex.
- They soon discover they are attracted to this new character and we have a few scenes where they might dream about them or talk about them to their friends in feigned disinterest.
- Dates, kissing, and sex scenes occur, depending on the rating.
- Inevitable tragedy. But your protagonist doesn’t want to be gay! OR But one of us is deathly ill! OR But I have a family with a hetero spouse! OR I cheated on you and now everything is garbage!
Sound familiar? Yes, it’s tragic. I have seen these stale plotlines again and again and a lot of the time the plot is accompanied with equally stale characters. I have said it numerous times and I’ll say it here: If you take away a character’s queerness and suddenly they are no longer interesting, you never had an interesting character to begin with. No amount of graphic sex scenes can make up for that.
Which brings me to why The Handmaiden is now one of my favorite movies of all time.
First of all, let me start by discussing about how much I love Min-hee Kim’s Lady Hideko and Kim Tae-ri’s Sook-hee. We began by being introduced to Sook-hee, a pickpocket with a deceased, infamous criminal mother. Sook-hee lives with a colorful group of individuals who raise children to sell to wealthy Japanese families. She is vulgar, arrogant, cunning, all while remaining endearingly childlike. Then we have Lady Hideko, a beautiful young woman who initially appears to be fragile and immature. Later we discover that she is even more cunning than Sook-hee and has been forced to read erotic novels for the pleasure of disgusting, perverted, wealthy men since she was a young girl. Lady Hideko and Sook-hee are absolutely magnetic on screen together but most importantly, the two are individually intriguing and entertaining to learn about, which is already a rarity among queer media. Together they create a relationship that had me almost delirious with fondness, and their sex scenes were so visceral, naughty, and genuine that it made me want to applaud.
A problem I have had with past films with queer sex scenes is that its intensity made me uncomfortable, and what was supposed to be read as passion came off as a director pushing his ladies into humiliating, exhausting, pornographic performances. I am happy to say that Park sought the feedback of his queer female best friend throughout the making of The Handmaiden. Additionally, for each sex scene Park set up the necessary cameras and the only crew member on set was a lady holding a boom mic. I feel that Park’s careful consideration of his leading ladies’ comfort gave their on-screen chemistry an extra layer of warmth and playfulness, in turn helping to create the best fictional lesbian couple I’ve ever seen.
Second of all, I loved the hell out of The Handmaiden’s creative and unique story-telling. I will admit that when I began watching this film, I immediately assumed I would be smarter than it. Instead, Park Chan-wook smacked me in the face twice. The Handmaiden is told in a 3-layered narrative giving depth to both plot and characters with each layer. I sat in that theater, utterly convinced that I knew how it would go and was shocked to find that the story was a puzzle that I didn’t know needed solving until Park started handing me the pieces. Although convoluted at times, Park’s story is rich, disturbing, erotic, hilarious, and captivating in a way that only a master story-teller can achieve.
Do you know why lesbian and gay fanfiction is so popular? It's because the media that is fed to us isn't satisfying us. Give us bone chilling horror, mindfucking sci-fi, explosion and superhero dense action, coffeeshop romcoms, AND LET YOUR MAIN CHARACTERS BE QUEER.
Thank you The Handmaiden for finally giving me a movie with cute, cunning, interesting women starring in a plot that was engaging and new and fun.
This was the sapphic delight I've wished for for so long.