By Nien-Chen Lin
Once again in The Handmaiden (2016), the world renowned auteur, Park Chan-wook, invites us to one of his most sensual cinematic worlds. Before one digs in to the film itself, it is worth noting that though the English title refers to Tamako, the maid; it’s Korean title Agasii refers to the lady, Hideko. This clever design and/or “slip of translation” foreshadows and interweaves two heroines’ emotional connections in the bizarre and cunning world they live in. Yes, it is not only about erotica as you might anticipate after viewing the trailer. As a successful commercial/cult director, Park Chan-wook certainly knows how to bring his audience into the theater. Promoted as an erotic thriller, The Handmaiden already occupied the must-see list of the public as early as 2015. For those who are familiar with Park Chan-wook and his twisted but highly aestheticized world, this upcoming film to some is being regarded as a grandiose comeback since the rather weird mixture of Korean essence and Hollywood texture Stoker in 2013.
Indeed, this delirious and violent combination has always been the trademark of Park Chan-wook’s film. From his most famous work Old Boy (2003) to Lady Vengeance (2005), and his subversion of generic vampire films in Thirst (2009), it is easy to notice the growing powers of his heroines. Yet this time Park Chan-wook gives us a triple-sided scheme weaved in a secluded mansion where a lady, a thief, and a fraud reside. With everyone’s life at stake, this heritage-pursuing scheme (based on heterosexual marriage) perfectly turns out to be a wonderland for lesbian desires. Yet again, is this utopian happy ending too good to be true? Is Park Chan-wook a feminist or an ultimate exploiter of women? In the well-known traditions of South Korean erotic films, how does The Handmaiden separate itself from the others aside from the historicized settings?
Unlike the controversies brought up by the lesbian sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013), the sex scenes here deliver a rather blatant yet clear message—a completeness which is lacking in heterosexuality. Raised and trained as the “reading doll” for Uncle Kouzuki and his aristocratic guests, Hideko is already sickened of the violent nature in penetration. Later when she comes to realize her affection to Tamako, this female bond actually saves the two from total destruction. In the last scene, when they finally enjoy their freedom from men, the symmetry of their sexualized bodies also imagines the completeness of lesbian sexuality.