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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.
tweet

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.

  • OccasionalContrarian

    Okay, but I still don’t feel like you’ve satisfyingly explained what made the scenes male-gazey.

  • Because they are presented in a way that is more about giving pleasure to the presumed viewer than they are about the women taking pleasure from each other. I daresay you have no idea what such scenes filmed in a non-male-gazey way would look like because we never seen such things onscreen.

  • OccasionalContrarian

    Mmkay, that makes sense, although I don’t agree that we’ve never seen that type of thing onscreen. As I mentioned before, The L Word and The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love both did admiable jobs of presenting Lesbian sex in that way. Another poster mentioned Black Swan, and I’m inclined to agree, although ymmv.

  • You’ve named a TV show and a 22-year-old film, and another film (maybe) that’s six years old.

    If you think this counters the overwhelming dominance of the male gaze, think again.

  • OccasionalContrarian

    I don’t at all think that’s overwhelming, or counters anything. Just saying that it can and has been done, so I do have some idea of what that would look like. I haven’t seen this movie, which is why I was not saying you were wrong to describe the scenes as you did, I was just curious as to why you felt that way so that if I choose to see the film I’ll know what to fast forward through.

  • Hua Lanying

    I’m honestly just really confused as to what appeals to the male gaze at all with this movie, not only because there’s not even one redeemable man in the movie, but because the sex scenes ESPECIALLY cater to women who love and have sex with women- I am one of them! As a lesbian it was so goddam refreshing to see lesbian sex represented in a non cringey, male gazey way for the first time i can recall. I’ve seen this film at least 5 times now, and the tenderness between the two girls, the humor inserted as they explore each other so innocently at first and then passionately once they’ve succeeded in escaping their abusers, and of course the significant lack of genital + boob visibility compared to other lesbian sex scenes I’ve seen before, all give it an A+ from me, your young and hip lesbian who will readily shred Blue is the Warmest Color for it’s actual male-gaze issues. There are only two sex scenes between hideko and soohkee, the first being longer than the second that comes at the closing of the movie. It felt so much like my own first time with my girlfriend, starting out a little awkward and shy and then accepting how much I want to show my love for her and things get more passionate. At the highest point of the first sex scene when sookhee prepares to go down on hideko, it’s laugh out loud awkward and hilarious the way you see her just staring in awe at this girl’s vagina for the first time, speechless. and hideko is just as surprised too. Your lack of specificity in your review of what exactly makes these two sex scenes so male-gazey makes me feel like you saw that the film was directed by a man and from there just decided to watch it with presumptions about the director’s motives in having lesbian sex scenes at all. I’m sharing these details with this community because it’s unfair you’re discouraging such a movie that not only gives arguably mainstream representation to queer women of colour, but that also shows lesbian relationships and sex scenes in such a normal, un-glamorized or even romanticized way. Maryann, I don’t know if you’re gay or bi or have ever been with a girl, but if so, I encourage you to watch the film again recalling your first sexual experience with a woman and tell me if it was so different. The sex scenes are acts of discovery and expressions of love and victory, of escape from the otherwise omnipresent male gaze coming from the male characters in the film, and the visual presentation of these scenes were far from exploitating or fetishizing. -rant over-

  • Hua Lanying

    read my review and i give some details! not porny in the least, and especially not male gazey.

  • Hua Lanying

    in this film you see more connected eyes then connected vaginas, i can tell you that much! even when sookhee is going down on hideko, all you see is her looking between her legs, you don’t see any sex parts. the girls almost never lose eye contact and there si such tenderness and a connection between them. as a lesbian viewing this film, nothing felt wrong or objectified in any way

  • Rachel

    Since it seems like my previous comment was deleted despite having a very informed view of the movie(I’m Hua Lanying) I’m reposting!

    I’m honestly just really confused as to what appeals to the male gaze at all with this movie, not only because there’s not even one redeemable man in the movie, but because the sex scenes ESPECIALLY cater to women who love and have sex with women- I am one of them! As a lesbian it was so goddam refreshing to see lesbian sex represented in a non cringey, male gazey way for the first time i can recall. I’ve seen this film at least 5 times now, and the tenderness between the two girls, the humor inserted as they explore each other so innocently at first and then passionately once they’ve succeeded in escaping their abusers, and of course the significant lack of genital + boob visibility compared to other lesbian sex scenes, all give it an A+ from me, your young and hip lesbian who will readily shred Blue is the Warmest Color for it’s actual male-gaze issues.

    There are only two sex scenes between hideko and soohkee, the first being longer than the second that comes at the closing of the movie. It felt so much like my own first time with my girlfriend, starting out a little awkward and shy and then accepting how much I want to show my love for her and things get more passionate. At the highest point of the first sex scene when sookhee prepares to go down on hideko, it’s laugh out loud awkward and hilarious the way you see her just staring in awe at this girl’s vagina for the first time, speechless. and hideko is just as surprised too.
    Your lack of specificity in your review of what exactly makes these two sex scenes so male-gazey makes me feel like you saw that the film was directed by a man and from there just decided to watch it with presumptions about the director’s motives in having lesbian sex scenes at all. I’m sharing these details with this community because it’s unfair you’re discouraging such a movie that not only gives arguably mainstream representation to queer women of colour, but that also shows lesbian relationships and sex scenes in such a normal, un-fetishized or even romanticized way.

  • Danielm80

    My guess is that Disqus is glitching again. Comments sometimes vanish and show up again later on. If MaryAnn wanted to delete your post, she would probably have deleted the other two as well. I didn’t agree with your comment, but it was obviously a thoughtful, detailed response to the movie and not just trolling.

    I loved The Handmaiden and have recommended it to more than one person, but the sex scenes felt like “fan service” to me. They were framed and edited in a way that emphasized the attractiveness of the performers more than the connection between the characters. The pacing of the scenes slowed down the film in a way that, for me, disrupted the flow of the story. The final scene, in particular, went on much too long. It didn’t add any new information. It just showed us more naked body parts. The scenes were so gratuitous that I started looking at my watch, wondering when we’d get back to the story.

  • Rachel

    Thanks for your reply and information about disqus, I am new to this kind of forum! I can see where you are coming from with the emphasis on the women’s attractiveness, and while I don’t agree that the editing didn’t show the connection between the women and that the last scene didn’t tell us anything new/was gratuitous, I think you have a really informed critical approach and will ponder this more for the next time i watch the film. I feel like the film overall is supposed to be very visually opulent and a bit of sensory overload, which I though tthe sex scenes neither broke from or heightened– only translated the sex into the same tone as the rest of the film. And i think it isn’t necessarily gratuitous or just showing off with the last scene since it shows how the girls’ relationship has developed and it’s their own sensual celebration of being free and being together, which i think is a celebration they deserve and the audience shouldn’t be neglected to see since we’ve so closely seen the torture and decit they’ve had to go through. That’s just my feeling about it. I really liked hearing your take on it

  • I have not deleted any of your comments, although this one was awaiting moderation, for reasons I cannot determine, unless it was *exactly* the same as the previous one you tried to post; Disqus will not allow duplicate comments to post.

    I’m honestly just really confused as to what appeals to the male gaze at all with this movie, not only because there’s not even one redeemable man in the movie

    The male gaze has absolutely zilch to do with whether there are redeemable men in the movie.

    IndieWire which is a well known and respected media source for reviews said this about the sex scenes

    Written by a man, so I’m gonna take that with a grain of salt.

    if you automatically say this comment is void of important due to his gender that’s just enforcing the ignorant misandry comments people have posted below

    I am not automatically dismissing any man’s comments due to his gender, but why is *his* opinion more valid than mine?

    Now Maryann I don’t know if you identify as gay or bi or have ever had sex with a woman before,

    I am not gay and have never had sex with a woman. But I am *hugely* experienced with how men depict women visually. I appreciate your opinion as a lesbian, but I stand by my contention that this film undermines not only its female protagonists but its themes that want to push back at men’s abuse of women.

  • The sex scenes could have been visually opulent without being male-gazey. The film could have celebrated the women’s relationship and their sexuality without being male-gazey. I agree with Daniel that the final scene was particularly egregious. I obviously can only speak from my own experience, but in general, whether having sex or ordering a coffee at Starbucks, do not see myself from a perspective across the room.

  • Danielm80

    I’m getting tempted to read the original novel, Fingersmith, to see how those moments are described–though I hear the story is quite different.

    The screenplay for the movie might be unobjectionable on its own. The relationships between the characters are complex and well-written. At certain points during the film, I would have liked to hold the script up in front of my face and read it.

  • RogerBW

    Well, at least this time it wasn’t a non-Western story being Westernised for our consumption.

  • I want to read the book as well. There’s also a British TV adaptation of it that looks amazing.

  • Le_Chat

    YES YES YES! This is exactly what I said to my (perplexed) male date after seeing this movie, down to mentioning Blue Is the Warmest Color. Park undermines the whole plot of these women rejecting the make gaze when he ends the film by placing them like statues, facing each other on a desk, for a performance of male-imagined lesbian sex. I think men actually are so used to being centered in viewing female sexuality in cinema, that they actually think that is a realistic portrayal. I mean, just to illustrate the point, can you imagine two gay males having sex in such a way in a film, sharply lit as they kneel before one another on a freaking desk sucking on ben-wa balls for several minutes with knowing looks? It would be seen as utterly absurd. I felt the male director’s hand in this supposed female-empowering film throughout, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that almost all of the glowing reviews of this movie are by men, and the only review I could find that nailed this glaring issue was written by a woman. Spot on.

  • Le_Chat

    100% agree.

  • Bert1

    Wow you are totally clueless. This was a superb movie – which is why Rotten Tomatoes gave it a score of 95% and 93% of people loved it. Its a free world so you have every right to be completely wrong in your opinion. Just don’t quit your day job.

  • Bert1

    Spare us the nonsense. This is a terrible and wildly inaccurate review.

  • Danielm80

    Which part of the review did you think was inaccurate?

  • Danielm80

    If you’re looking for a democratic polling place where people vote on the quality of the film, this is not it. This review is the personal opinion of one film critic, just like every other movie review. Some of us read FlickFilosopher specifically because we tend to disagree with the majority opinion.

    I don’t always agree with MaryAnn’s opinions, either, but reading her thoughts about a film always makes the movie more interesting.

    If you want to know what most people think, you can ignore this site completely and look at Rotten Tomatoes, or check the film’s box office results, where people have voted with their dollars. If you just want to insult everyone who disagrees with you, rather than actually discuss the film, this may not be the site for you.

  • Bluejay

    Care to explain what she’s wrong and clueless about? Or should we just take your word for it, Internet Stranger?

  • Wow, you sure schooled me! Whatever was I thinking?

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