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. 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 movies that center non-hegemonic characters are currently playing in theaters, and I will focus on The Handmaiden since I’ve watched it.* 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 for both its domestic and foreign audiences and uses foreign critical acclaim and timely arrival in America to make non-stereotypical Asian female agency and sexuality visible in a global sphere.
Park Chan Wook, a self-identifying feminist, is an unlikely but powerful ally. He is South Korea’s most prominent director both, an auteur comparable to Quentin Tarantino (who is apparently a huge fan of Park) for clout, provocativeness and raw vision. Yes he is a straight man, 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. Immediately concerns about exploitation and essentialism loom, but Park’s socioeconomic and industry status negates most exploitative incentive – his net worth is $10 million and he is known for violent, sexually-charged plots and bizarre, complex characters. He always takes risks, especially considering Korea’s externally conservative culture, and has little regard for avoiding taboos. Park used his privilege as a internationally successful male director to tell a women’s story from women’s points of view. Manpower works like a charm sometimes.
The movie’s setting of a handmaiden-heiress Korean lesbian pair in Japan, during the 1920s era of Japanese colonialism in Korea, is fascinatingly layered and unprecedented in Korean movies, not least because of the lesbian part. Mainstream Korean 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 created by the most famous director meant The Handmaiden broke records for R-rated movie box office sales its opening weekend. Korean film critics’ responses positively focused on the fresh plot hinging on smart women manipulating men’s sexual thirst, reverting sexual harassment inflicted upon themselves to give men a taste of their own medicine. Viewers learn that Hideko has been hypersexualized for profit and threatened by her perverted uncle (who is also her husband-to-be) but has never had sex or human contact outside the family estate. The movie is also read as a necessary cultural critique of recent allegations of sexual harassment in the Korean media industry, through the palatable lens of beautiful everything. The two exquisitely beautiful main characters, elaborate yet almost sterile mise-en scene, and settings fit for a magical realism novel are almost necessary conditions for the film to succeed, especially in Korea. It’s an accepted rather than an embraced prerequisite that makes the unorthodox content more accessible to many Korean viewers in Korea.
An obvious queer of color critique lens highlights that same fantastical quality as a shortcoming. Though the film proudly forefronts same-sex love, Hideko and Sookee are played by actors who physically fit every bill of conventional beauty; the maniacal uncle keeps a giant octopus in his torture chamber; Sookee notes how good Hideko is at sex, though Hideko has never had sexual contact. The many unrealistic details normalize Hideko and Sookee’s “shocking” relationship, somewhat diminishing the magnitude of their relationship’s implications within its temporal context. However, Park’s directorial style also explains many of the movie’s queer (I’m not being facetious) components. Disability is also used as a plot tool to create conflict, when Sookee pretends to be tricked into being framed as an insane maid who has created scenarios in her mind, taken away to be locked away forever in a psychiatric hospital. While it’s realistic that mentally ill patients in the setting would be placed in institutions, all the women inside the hospital are painted as deranged, uncontrolled creatures who must be shackled to tables while they eat. This portrayal exacerbates stereotypes of mental illness in an otherwise impressively progressive movie.
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 in Korea. 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, up in lights with all the big movies. It has been reviewed in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian and many other prominent publications. The exposure and praise are deserved, but the seeming necessity of a positive white American gaze to legitimate 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. Luckily the reviews don’t dwell on Fingersmith, the Victorian era-set novel Agassi is based on, as it would ironically turn credit back to the Eurocentric world to null Park and his characters’ agency. The white gaze may heavily influence contemporary beauty norms, but it shouldn’t diminish the standalone significance The Handmaiden holds in the history of queer cinema in its homeland.
I’ve definitely raised some cynical contentions. The Handmaiden is a step forward for all women, and women who love women in any way, and women of color. Hideko and Sookee initially seem to be helpless lotus blossom and cunning dragon lady, respectively. However, with every plot twist it becomes clear that they act in zero accordance with stereotypes: both act with great agency for themselves and to help each other. Still, today is an especially poignant time for examining the workings of Euro-U.S.centric global feminism (Lee 7) on people of color. Why is the illusion of having choice, “neoliberal sentiments of self-possession, self-esteem, and empowerment” (Lee 23), a feature attributed to white feminist beauty? Empowerment looks and feels different for women in different settings, but desire for physical empowerment separate from appearance – the white beauty norms Lee says Korean women are influenced by – are certainly legitimate. To live freely is a privilege that Sookee and Hideko, and millions of other women have wanted for centuries, and not because white feminists do. Perhaps more films humanizing people at the margins will help craft a holistic image of global feminism.
*UPDATE: Since time of publication I also watched Moonlight (gay Black man in War on Drugs America) and Loving (interracial married couple in 1960s America). I can’t write an essay, but both of these movies are impactful, important oft-untold stories. Disney’s Moana (superempowered Polynesian Disney princess) is another on the list.