It’s easy to get sick of the same movies, especially when Hollywood churns out formulaic mumbo-jumbo productions of gun-blazing violence and stale romantic dramedies; popcorn on a theater floor would easily be preferable instead. So there’s something to be said about a movie that can be re-watched within just a few days. Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden was so delectable that on the second round I forced my boyfriend to watch it with me. “It’s really, really good,” I told him. In case that wasn’t incentive enough, “And it’s erotic.”
In a cultural moment where queer movies receive more face time in mainstream media, it would be simple to dismiss The Handmaiden as following the footsteps of Blue is the Warmest Color, Carol, et al. (all submitted to Cannes). I’ve watched the latter two and both were too stuffy and concerned with aesthetics to be completely enjoyable for me. Lesbian romances are doomed to fail, they said. Or it’s ambiguous, whatever.
The Handmaiden is refreshing, hot, thrilling, and wild. Including an all POC cast, it reimagines tired tropes of lesbian romances. A story told in three parts, Lady Hideko (chained to a forthcoming marriage and the whims of her sadistic, ink-guzzling uncle), Sook-Hee (a Korean pickpocket), and so-called Count Fujiwara (a conman), take turns swindling each other. The gorgeous cinematography guides you through the twists and turns of the narrative. You could even call it erotic: the camera’s lingering on sumptuous scenery, details of Lady Hideko’s dresses and jewelry, the succulence of the human body reduced to eyes, lips, hands, breasts. The movie seduces you, leaving you floored as another unexpected tidbit of each character’s ploy is revealed.
What I most enjoyed was how Hideko and Sook-Hee reclaimed their fate by re-narrativizing the existence men created for them. On one hand there’s Kouzuki, Lady Hideko’s uncle who forces her to take on the role left by her deceased aunt. She performs book readings, the subject matter erotic and the women in the stories often left to the men’s disposal. On the other there’s Count Fujiwara who, under the guise of freedom and fortune, forces Hideko and Sook-Hee to beguile each other in the roles he devised for them. They subvert the fantasies of both men, a concept unheard of to each. In his last moments Kouzuki wants Fujiwara to recount his sexual exploits with Hideko. Was she good? How was it? He’ll never know – with their deaths both men’s fantasies remain unfulfilled. In contrast, at the movie’s end Hideko and Sook-Hee are en route to Shanghai, making love for neither Kouzuki’s or Fujiwara’s eyes except the audience’s own.
Completely gripping from start to finish I was either gasping or peeking through the sliver of my fingers when scenes got fleshy or violent. My friend was left in a similar state. The boyfriend of a couple next to me? He was hiding in the sleeves of his girlfriend’s jacket, too overcome to see more.
In short: Go watch it. Just remember to bring a friend or two so you have someone’s hand to grip, just in case you get bothered. Or hot.
The Handmaiden (US Release Date October 21) is currently playing at California Theatres and Embarcadero Center Cinema.