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movies matter | criticism by maryann johanson

The Handmaiden movie review: the women pushing back against misogyny, thwarted by their own film

The Handmaiden yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
The intrigue, shifting alliances, and twisted revenge? Delicious, pulpy fun. The male-gazey soft-core porn that undermines the female protagonists? Not so much.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

In Japanese-occupied 1930s Korea, a Korean con man (Jung-woo Ha) and a Korean pickpocket (Tae-ri Kim) conspire to steal the fortune of sheltered Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). He will pose as “Count Fujiwara” and woo Hideko, while thief Sook-Hee will become Hideko’s shy new maid “Tamako” and convince the lady to run off with the handsome and romantic count instead of marrying her hideous widowed uncle-by-marriage Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), who of course is (also) only after his niece’s money. The plan is, after “Fujiwara” and Hideko are wed, he will have her declared insane and committed to an asylum — because that’s a thing that a man could do — and her money will be his to split with Sook-Hee. Easy peasy, no?

“You think I’m a creep, sweetheart? Wait till you see how Park has been shooting you.”

“You think I’m a creep, sweetheart? Wait till you see how Park has been shooting you.”tweet

Not at all, natch. What begins as a lush costume drama soon morphs into a morass of intrigue, shifting alliances, and twisted revenge, one that changes perspectives among the characters in ways that keep us in exquisite suspense about who to trust, who to root for, and who even to like. It’s a lot of delicious, pulpy fun. But The Handmaiden has one big problem that nearly ruined it for me.tweet It’s a problem that has such long roots in film that we could almost deem it traditional, but it’s not one that cinema can get away with any longer. And for a movie like this one, which clearly intends itself to be taken seriously on its own terms even amidst its sensationalism, it’s almost unforgivable.

The Handmaiden’s big problem has long roots in film, but it’s not one that cinema can get away with any longer.

It’s like this: By moving, in place and time, the action of Sarah Waters’s 2002 Victorian England-set novel Fingersmith, legendary South Korean director Chan-wook Park — with a screenplay assist from Seo-kyeong Jeong — has layered the rage of the colonized atop the classism of the original story (which probably has more resonance for Asian audiences than for Western ones). But sexism remains the key vector of The Handmaiden’s cultural commentary… and that of its biggest problem.

The intrigue and shifting alliances grow out of the erotic charge that sparks between Hideko and “Tamako” from the moment they meet, and Sook-Hee’s resolve about the scam gets thrown into doubt: how can she go through with it when she is not only powerfully sexually attracted to Hideko but also falling in love, and Hideko with her? But can Sook-Hee trust Hideko to tell her the truth about the “count”? And so the story pivots to become one about women slyly pushing back against men who would use and abuse them, sexually and psychologically, and how the misogynist culture the women exist in makes it difficult even to count on other women as allies.

“Is he still watching?” “Who, the director? Yes, the perv.”

“Is he still watching?” “Who, the director? Yes, the perv.”tweet

Yet Park’s depiction of them is objectifying, demeaning, and far more interested in creating titillating male-gazey soft-core porn than with actually exploring sexuality from a woman’s perspective… and in this case, from a perspective of a female sexuality that has nothing to do with men. Like Blue Is the Warmest Color, The Handmaiden is a lesbian romance that cares most about how lesbians can turn on men.tweet Except this is even worse, because this movie actively undermines its protagonists and their story. One subplot running through The Handmaiden revolves around how Hideko’s uncle has been forcing her to perform a certain sort of sexual titillation for his male guests, how horrific an experience this is for her, and how awful her uncle and his friends are for enjoying her enforced performance … and yet Park is doing much the same thing to his female characters. The filmmaker and his perceived audience are cast as the villains.tweet

It’s difficult to see how Park himself could not appreciate the irony in this (and there is no sense that he does). It’s difficult to see how Park was unaware that his eye is a decidedly unwelcome interloper in a relationship that is overtly about excluding men from the pleasure these two women take in each other. Until male filmmakers can demonstrate that they are able to tell women’s stories ostensibly from women’s perspectives in a way that stands down from the misogynistic expectation that women exist to serve men, perhaps those male filmmakers should stand down from telling such stories.

yellow light 2.5 stars

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The Handmaiden (2016) | directed by Chan-wook Park
US/Can release: Oct 21 2016
UK/Ire release: Apr 14 2017

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 18 (strong sex, sex references)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Danielm80

    I’m confused but entertained by the double meaning of “how lesbians can turn on men.”

    I’m also surprised that the film took so long to arrive in the UK, more than six months after the US release. I wonder what caused the delay.

  • Carol

    Thank you for this review. Very well put.

  • Another critic who didnt search for how Park Chan-Wook worked on love scenes…

  • Danielle Lemos

    I am a woman and I disagree with this review. First, I think the movie is a masterpiece and one of last year’s best. The erotic scenes have a purpose to exist (spoiler): they not only help to build the women’s relationship, but also make many of the character’s actions believable and are essencial to change our perspective about the story itself (there are a lot of hidden meanings in every frame). And by the way, Park was extremely respectful to both actresses while shooting the sex scenes; you can even search about it.

  • As a lesbian, I laughed out loud at many of the sex scenes. At the same time, this was my favorite movie of 2016.

    I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying, MAJ. I guess it just didn’t get to me for whatever reason.

  • Tomo81

    she hated It Follows for semi-obnoxious reasons too

  • OccasionalContrarian

    As much as I agree that lesbian sex scenes (or really, sex scenes in general) in movies that aren’t porn can be unnecessarily gratuitous, I’m not sure if I agree that they’re inherantly male-gazey, since I know a helluva lot of women, regardless of gender, who love that stuff too. And what about lesbian or bisexual women? Isn’t the idea that naked women and women engaged in sexual activities are shown that way solely for male pleasure sort of neglecting them? Are the women in the film fully realized characters? Or merely decoration? Are the scenes romantic? Or just graphic with little in the way of affection shown between the women? I am a woman by the way.

  • OccasionalContrarian

    Sorry, I meant regardless of sexuality, not gender.

  • OccasionalContrarian

    I did not see the film, although I had been planning to, so I’m just curious as to how the sex scenes were specifically shot to appeal to men. I saw Blue Is The Warmest color, the sex scenes did not appeal to me because they were too long winded and lacked romance in my opinion (compared to many of the scenes on The L Word or the one scene in The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love) they were almost hardcore porny in tone. I’m guessing this film had similar issues, although she described them as softcore porny.

  • OccasionalContrarian

    Judging from what I’ve seen of this movie, screenshots and such, it is all rather arty and pretty. I kind of assumed that’s how the sex scenes would be.

  • IntrepidNormal

    ugh! Don’t even get me started on BITWC. Not only was it boring as hell, the sex scenes were about as needlessly graphic and unerotic as it gets. I may be misremembering because I was so put off the first time, but the girls never seemed to be enjoying themselves; curiously dead eyes, more focus on sex parts than faces and hands, you know, the reactionary parts , just wrong on every level. It would be disappointing if this film is the same way, since everything I’ve seen for it is so tasteful and gloriously feminine. If the scenes are more like the one in Black Swan then I’d be cool with that.

  • One word: scissoring.

    I wouldn’t call the sex scenes long-winded, but there were a fair number of them and they were pretty graphic and a bit OTT. (Again: scissoring).

  • IntrepidNormal

    Yeah, don’t know a whole lot of women who bang their vaginas together for pleasure. But I do know more than one, so… Whatever creams their corn I guess.

  • John

    This is the perfect example of why dumb white women with an axe to grind should never review movies

  • Bluejay

    This is the perfect example of why dumbass men with no clue should never post comments

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I would have gone with “fuckbois with mommy issues” myself.

  • Guest

    “Misandrist Film Reviews” is the theme here. The same leitmotif appears in all the writings. Quite funny.

  • amanohyo

    You’re right, mystery guest. Although it may appear to the uninformed that the theme is the perceived dissonance between a story of budding female liberation and lipstick lesbian soft porn, when I place my mragic decoder ring over all the writings the truth is revealed: I H A T E T E H M E N Z

    Quite so. Quite so.

  • Guest

    The film “reviews” are just a vehicle for a constant barrage of misandry leveled at men, white men to be precise. Tyrese Gibson had an abusive rant against women in a recent interview. Crashing silence. Yet Chris Pratt is targeted for his tepid comments. Can you guess why ?

  • Bluejay

    Can you guess why ?

    *raises hand* Ooh, me, me! I’ll guess. She’s probably seen Pratt’s interview but hasn’t seen Gibson’s. (*I* didn’t know about it until you brought it up.) I have to say, she’s really bad at living up to your very reasonable expectation that critics should be aware of, and comment on, all things at all times.

    But yeah, I suppose misandry against white male characters is why she gave favorable reviews to Logan, Kong: Skull Island, La La Land, Hell or High Water, The Family Fang, Sully, Allied, Deepwater Horizon, Man of Steel, Nolan’s Batman movies, and most of the Marvel superhero films. Really see your point there, Guest! You’re not cherry-picking at all!

  • Guest

    It was on Variety and Billboard magazine, leading entertainment publications and all over the twitterverse. Much more widely carried than Pratt’s rather tame comment. Again, very curious absence since his movie is reviewed here. And would Tyrese’s uncouth behavior be considered representative for his ethnic group, in the same way bad behavior of some white people is considered representative of all white people according to the theme here. Yeah, the cherry picking is being done. But not by me. You are a good little defensive minion.

  • Bluejay

    bad behavior of some white people is considered representative of all white people according to the theme here

    Ooh, what an excellent strawman! And what an absolutely relevant point, bringing up her hatred of whites as clearly seen in her review of a film by a South Korean director. Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

  • Guest

    Did you read the “review” of “Get Out” posted here ? Your “dazzling intellect” missed that one. It was just a relentless diatribe with absolutely no nuance or humor, cheered on in the comments by you and others in the asylum. Truly, you are as witless and clueless as expected. Enjoy your little circle of of head nodders here. It’s all you have.

  • Bluejay

    Thank you for the ad hominems! I love collecting these signs that the adversary has run out of ammo. Have a lovely day!

  • Guest

    Rather tame “ad hominems” compared with the weird outbursts from “Dr Rocketscience” below.. Another of the ones here who gives you the regular reach around in this mutual admiration society ? Have a looney day !

  • Bluejay

    Yep, totally running on empty. Absolutely delightful!

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    The anonymous fuckbois are the bestest

  • Why would I search for that? I’m reviewing what’s on the screen, not how it got made.

  • I didn’t say the erotic scenes shouldn’t be in the film. I complained about how they are presented.

  • I’m not sure if I agree that they’re inherantly male-gazey

    Great, because I didn’t say that.

    I know a helluva lot of women, regardless of gender, who love that stuff too.

    Our culture trains women to be turned on my sexualized imagery of women. That doesn’t mean that such imagery isn’t male-gazey.

  • I don’t think you know what “misandrist” means. But thanks for playing!

  • BraveGamgee

    A constant barrage of misandry levelled at men? I’m confused. Why do I not feel attacked? Why do the regular male commenters here not feel attacked? Could it be that MaryAnn actually doesn’t make overgeneralized statements about men, but rather talks about the dangers of patriarchal thinking (which both men and women can perpetuate)?

  • Guest

    A psychologist would find the writings here a pretty clear example of someone with deep rooted anger issues in that regard.

  • Aww, you’re sweet.

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