The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden ★★★★★

Where did the erotic thriller disappear to? I refuse to believe #MeToo killed the sub-genre, because I noticed a dip in quality long before.

Does this era even have a Body Heat? A Fatal Attraction? A Basic Instinct? A Bound? An Unfaithful? Hell there's not even a Wild Things! I guess you could say Gone Girl but that movie is too cynical to be raunchy (unless Rosamund Pike straddling a slit throat Neil Patrick Harris is your thing). Even Bond Girls lately have gotten tamer. I'm talking seduction and thrills; eros and thanatos; a pleasurable game with a promise of pain to come. At their worst, erotic thrillers are trashy, shock-value schlock. At their best, they are unnerving penetrating delves into our primal id.

Today's mainstream cinema and tv might be at its most sexless on every level. They don’t cast for chemistry in tv or movies anymore. Its just conventionally attractive people who look like Kendall Jenner. It's in nearly every film or show I watch. No passion, no chemistry, no emotion. Maybe its because we can now access titillating material with our portable devices, so there's no longer this need to pay to see unbearably hot people tiptoeing around sex and death! I miss when Hollywood put a premium on this sub-genre. Oh well, if nobody got me in Hollywood, I know South Korea got me!

The Handmaiden is set at the height of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s. An orphan pickpocket is hired as a handmaiden for a seemingly repressed Japanese heiress. The pickpocket is in cahoots with a Count who plans on seducing the heiress to abscond with her fortune - the heiress lives with her uncle and cannot inherit because she's a woman in olden times, you see. And that's just the first Act of this movie. Suddenly this story deconstructs itself before our very eyes; cutting from point of view and flashbacks, in a nonlinear manner that would make Tarantino suck on Park Chan-Wook's toes. Everyone is playing a role in order to get what they need. In the end, it's about a battle to determine who gets to tell whose story.

So this is the part where I'm supposed to say that this film has an unavoidable Male Gaze. But I choose to hold ambivalence on whether or not this is a subversive movie that escapes its gaze. Park Chan-Wook decided to adapt this queer romance and I would have no other capable director to fill his shoes. Did he make this for straight audiences or for queer ones? We may never know. What I do know is that I bought into the character motivations and yearnings. Park's camera differentiates between exploitation and consent: it is clinically omniscient whenever a male character is deriving nonconsensual pleasure; and then he shoots more dynamically when the females reciprocate their affection for each other. We are repulsed by the controlling men who grope the women and compel them to read dirty books; we are invited to observe the female protagonists finding liberation in each other.

And isn't liberation an essential part of Queerness? Two women escaping patriarchal tentacles (LITERALLY), running away with the money - money which by the way was the birthright of the heiress! They thrash the pornhub of the heiress' uncle - a symbolic rebuke of being playthings to the benefit of cisnormative eyes. Straight and queer audiences are allowed to empathize with the women, rooting for them to play on the feeble mindedness of the men in their lives. I'd say that's as progressive as can be.

I know people go on about Oldboy and how it's the best thing from Korea. Indeed Park is the only true Hitchcockian working today - and don't say De Palma coz that guy is an unabashed fanboy replicating the aesthetics of Hitchcock, often failing to reach the actual feel of Hitchcock. For me, The Handmaiden is Park's true masterpiece. In the words of the Count, I shall die on this hill "with my cock intact".


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