by Woojae Julia Song
People of color and LGBTQ people will bear a large brunt of the hate following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, both materially and emotionally. In addition to taking concrete action, consuming examples of contemporary arts activism – non-traditional narratives that center “marginalized, queer voices to actively combat erasure” (class 10/31) – can serve as an avenue for both marginalized individuals and allies to materially and emotionally react to hegemonic discourse.
Several films that explicitly and implicitly humanize non-hegemonic characters are currently being screened in mainstream theaters (including the Evanston movie theater): The Handmaiden (lesbian Asian women in colonial Korea-Japan diasporic context), Moonlight (gay Black man in War on Drugs America), Loving (interracial married couple in 1960’s America) and The Eagle Huntress (girl aiming for traditionally father-to-boy role in Kazakhstan). I will focus on The Handmaiden, since it’s the one I’ve watched. The Handmaiden or Agassi (아가씨) in Korean, director Park Chan Wook’s latest movie, uniquely – of course, imperfectly – subverts nearly all the intersections of identity through its wide reach enabled by Park, extensive foreign critical acclaim and timely arrival in American theaters to break both its domestic and foreign audiences, and provide an unlikely lens to further understand terrified reactions to president-elect Donald Trump.
Park Chan Wook, a self-identifying feminist, is an unlikely but powerful ally. He is South Korea’s most prominent director both at home and abroad, an auteur comparable to Quentin Tarantino (who is apparently a huge fan of Park) for clout, provocativeness and raw visions. Yes he is a man, yes he is straight, but he absolutely forefronts a story of lesbian love and escape from the tentacles of what is portrayed as constricting, gross masculinity with surprising care and deliberateness. The movie’s setting of a handmaiden-heiress Korean lesbian pair in Japan, during the 1920s era of Japanese colonialism in Korea, is fascinatingly complex and unprecedented in Korean movies, not least because of the lesbian part. Korean mainstream media is still extremely averse to portraying sexual aspects of non-heteronormative love, of which this film shows plenty. The historically rooted narrative combined with beautiful cinematography capturing gorgeous actors created by the most famous director meant The Handmaiden broke records for R-rated movie box office sales its first weekend; Park used his privilege and power as a successful male director to empower women. Immediately concerns about exploitation and essentialism loom, but Park’s prominence precisely negates any extra economic gain he would get – if anything, he was taking a risk within Korea’s culture, or confident he could transcend subliminal cultural taboos, or both. Korean film critics’ responses positively focused on the fresh plot hinging on women manipulating men’s sexual thirst, reverting sexual harassment inflicted upon the women to give men a taste of their own medicine. The movie is also read as a necessary cultural critique of recent allegations of sexual harassment in the Korean media industry, through a lens of beautiful everything.
The beautiful everything is almost a necessary condition for the film to succeed in Korea. It’s an accepted, rather than an embraced prerequisite. The film’s success becomes more concerning when it fares so well in the global scene – the “intersection of feminism, social media and geopolitics” (Beauty Between Empires, Sharon Heijin Lee, 3) explains more than uncomfortable prevalence of plastic surgery. The Handmaiden premiered with a nomination for the highest prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in May. It’s running a limited set of full U.S. dates – not marketed as an arthouse film, or independent film, but up there in lights with all the American movies. It has a 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been written about in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian and many other publications. The exposure and praise are deserved, but the seeming necessity of a positive white American gaze to measure the value of a film with The Handmaiden’s attributes is pauseworthy. In explaining the politics of American beauty as “mobilized in national and transnational contests of meaning and power” (Lee 9) and a “conduit to capitalism” (class 10/31), Lee brings up a crucial point about colonialism’s lasting effects on what is beautiful thousands of miles apart. EVERY English review I’ve read examines how the film is loosely based off of a 2002 novel called Fingersmith. This point can null any agency from female protagonists Sookee and Hideko, and their creator Park, ironically turning credit back to the viewer’s male ancestor, the precise figure who they successfully escape from by the film’s end. The white gaze may heavily influence contemporary beauty norms, but it cannot diminish the significance The Handmaiden holds in the history of lesbian depictions in its native media, relativity be damned.
Today is a poignant time for examining the workings of Euro-U.S.centric global feminism (Lee, 7) on American political discourse. If white feminist beauty is the illusion of having choice, “neoliberal sentiments of self-possession, self-esteem, and empowerment” (23), any affirmation is celebrated, and any threat is policed. Trump was known as a terrible human being early in his campaign – his financial standing, his racism, his climate denial, his utmost disrespectfulness. His status as irreconcilable, though, was cemented only after release of his evidence of his condoning objectification and sexual harassment of (white) women. Timing contributed. But how were so many people moved to flood their social media with denouncements of “the tangerine tornado” after the locker room talk tapes, but not after his statements essentializing and demonizing Mexicans, Black people and Chinese people? People can ignore deep, deep injustice if they are ultimately unaffected. For many Americans, sexism is the only form of disenfranchisement they will actively identify with. The election disrupted neoliberalism in a perverse way by forcing, really forcing millions of Americans to see that their country is far from being a place of equity in terms of agency and privilege. Neoliberalism’s illusions are unsustainable and weak. But once honestly unclouded and dismantled, true liberty can be built. Together.