November 3, 2016

The Handmaiden: Woman Is the Future of Man

Lady Vengeance marked a turning point in Park Chan-wook's career, being as it was, his first feature film to have a female protagonist. He'd had important female characters before: the radical girlfriend in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the unfortunate daughter in Oldboy, even the special investigator in Joint Security Area. Yet, as you can see, these women were largely defined by their relationships to men. Once Park put a woman front and center, however, his female characters got a hell of a lot more interesting. The insane young woman in I'm a Cyborg, But that's Okay and his variation of Therese Raquin for his vampire flick Thirst are much more complicated than the various women who came before. I guess, Park simply realized that he couldn't get Song Kang-ho for every movie he was making.

Which isn't to say that Park has moved beyond the male gaze with his latest. To the contrary, The Handmaiden seems to revel in it. The more powerful his on-screen women become, the more sexual they become as well. This particular movie takes that idea to its utmost extreme. The love triangle that forms between an orphan-heiress (Kim Min-hee), the titular handmaiden (Kim Tae-ri), and a fraudulent Count (Ha Jung-woo) would in theory show three different pairings but when it comes to the kissing, stroking, fingering, nipple licking, felatio, scissoring, and the insertion of ringing balls, most of that's done by the two women to each other. Intercourse between a man and a woman is more likely to be threatened (or read via old smutty books) than actualized. But this it too titilating to be a feminist manifesto. Sometimes the sex is shown from a humorous vantage point (the crotch POV); other times, the nudity is highly theatrical (in profile atop a table). Park's often been criticized for the violence in his movies (and there's definitely some shockers here) but you've got to give him credit: He also knows how to compose a picture — admittedly with some serious help from Chung Chung-hoon, the brilliant cinematographer who'd worked with him on six other films before this one.

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