How “bad objects” are used to empower women in “The Handmaiden”

Earlier this year, Park Chan-wook, an acclaimed Korean film director released “The Handmaiden,” a wonderfully complicated movie that features everything from incest to a lesbian awakening to performances of literotica. In October, “The Handmaiden,” which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, began showing in the United States, leading to an influx of film reviews from major publications such as The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The New Yorker. A lot of criticism revolved around the film’s lesbian sex scenes, which some reviews called “puerile” or “gratuitous.” They fail to recognize that Park, like many of the Asian American feminist filmmakers mentioned in Shimizu’s “Political Power of Hypersexuality,” uses “sexually perverse acts” in the film to empower the women involved and to make a point about how Asian female sexuality is consumed by men.

In “The Handmaiden,” three sex scenes are shown between the two main female characters, Korean handmaiden Sookee and Japanese heiress Hideko. Two of the scenes show the same sexual encounter, just from different perspectives. There are also two scenes showing failed sexual encounters between Hideko and the Count, a scheming Korean con man. The sex scenes between the women are unapologetic about showing pleasure, oftentimes self-consciously emphasizing that they’re shot from a male gaze through wide shots, frequent pans and an avoidance of unnecessary nudity. From shots positioned from between Hideko’s legs to fantasies spoken out loud, nearly every possible overused trope seen in lesbian sex scenes is used in “The Handmaiden.”

The sex scenes led to criticism from Michael O’Sullivan, a film critic for The Washington Post. One of his main complaints was that Park fell back on some of his lurid habits from other films — dwelling unnecessarily on the sex between two women through a heterosexual man’s lens — with an “overheated parody of Sapphic lust.” However, O’Sullivan misses the point that Park was trying to make by exaggerating the male gaze during the lesbian sex scenes by calling “The Handmaiden” quasi-feminist. In the film, each character performs a role, whether it be that of a meek, sheltered heiress, dutiful maid or a pupil of reading literotica. Hideko and Sookee don’t stop performing when in bed as they act out fantasies for each other, but they are consciously doing so for each other rather than the men in their lives. In that moment, they don’t need the validation of those men. In fact, the male gaze during the sex scenes seems so absurdly out of place, one quickly realizes that Park is trying to tell the audience that Hideko and Sookee don’t need maleness to find pleasure.

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While Park is not an Asian American feminist filmmaker, what he tries to do in the sex scenes in “The Handmaiden” is similar in some ways to those mentioned in “Political Power of Hypersexuality.” Park challenges the abnormality of how male sexuality expresses itself through exaggerations of how men approach sex. He does so by producing a “bad object” and presenting a social critique of sexual heteronormativity and gender through a “sexually improper” act (Shimizu, 227). One example of this is when Sookee sees Hideko’s breasts for the first time, she earnestly blurts out, “It’s cute!” Even though it’s a comedic moment in the film, it’s not inconceivable to imagine a man saying that to a woman during a sexual encounter. But when male sexuality is overplayed in such an obvious way to challenge its validity, it makes men uncomfortable.

Hideko is forced to choose between heteronormativity and queerness in “The Handmaiden,” comparable to how Sally chooses between being with a white man or a black man in Helen Lee’s “Sally’s Beauty Spot” (Shimizu, 235-236). Hideko, like Sally, chooses against heteronormative expectations, empowering herself. This is shown during a failed sexual encounter between Hideko and the Count, during which she uses his fantasies against him by drugging him with wine passed to his mouth through hers. Shortly after, we see Hideko and Sookee in their final sexual encounter, in which they giggle and reenact a fantasy from the literotica Hideko was forced to read out loud to a male audience by her perverted Korean uncle. By acting out the sexual fantasy for each other, Hideko and Sookee empower themselves by taking away the maleness of that fantasy. In fact, heteronormative sexuality is shown as much more toxic and perverse in the film than the lesbianism.

By analyzing Park’s “The Handmaiden” through Shimizu’s lens, one can see that he challenges sexual heteronormativity through using a deliberate male gaze during the lesbian sex scenes to give more depth to the Hideko and Sookee and comparing their sexualities to the twisted sexualities of the male characters. He quietly infiltrates the audience’s perception of sex over the course of the film and forces them to not only reevaluate what sexual perversity is, but to see that liberation can come in the form of queerness. To call the sexual acts in “The Handmaiden” “unnecessary” or “silly” is to overlook all of that.

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