Sex in cinema is a complex thing. Depicting something so private, yet so routine, with taste and titillation at the same time has been a difficult problem for filmmakers, studios and audiences alike. The Motion Picture Association of America strictly forbids any act that would edge on actual pornography, and sex in movies is nothing more than pure simulation.
Furthermore, men direct the vast majority of movies — they comprise 93.6 percent of the Directors Guild of America — which has turned the act of intercourse into almost a one-sided delight. Many times, women’s bodies are photographed with desire and submission while the men, and whatever predilections they harbor, are treated as the audience’s perspective. Regardless of who is in that audience.
However, the walls of respectability are crumbling. Recent trends in art-house films have turned sex, particularly lesbian sex and S&M, into cinematic Trojan Horses, enticing mainstream audiences to movies that are left of the dial. Unlike the rinky-dink kink of 50 Shades of Grey, films like Blue is the Warmest Color, The Duke of Burgundy, Carol and now The Handmaiden have embraced the carnal pleasures of the flesh while spinning subversive tales of love, sex, power and corruption.
For The Handmaiden, master Korean director Park Chan-wook transports Sarah Water’s historical crime novel Fingersmith to pre-World Word II Japanese-occupied Korea, mixes in elements of Hitchcock into the already labyrinthine plot and decorates his frame with sumptuous production design, costuming and sex. The result is enticingly giddy in its psychological corruption, both of the characters — it’s a standard gas-lighting plot — and of audience expectation.
To achieve this effect, Park uses multiple red herrings to build a twisty story of deception, starting with conman Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) hiring pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to assist him in his elaborate scheme. Fujiwara plants Sook-hee as a handmaiden to the rich heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a beautiful woman under the thumb of the ruthless Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a collector of rare and ancient erotica.
Fujiwara’s plan is to use Sook-hee as Hideko’s double and commit her to an insane asylum in Hideko’s place so that Fujiwara and Hideko, now under an assumed identity, can run off to Russia together. To put this plan in motion, Sook-hee and Hideko must grow close publically so that Kouzuki, or any other authoritarian man in Hideko’s life, does not question the deception. But as Sook-hee and Hideko spend time together, they grow closer and begin to develop plans of their own.
The Handmaiden is a sexy, and at times gratuitous movie, but there is more at work here than simple eroticism. By depicting a lesbian sex scene in the detail that Park does, he focuses on the pleasure of the scene and the pleasures both women draw from it. A pleasure that is vehemently denied them anytime they are in a room with a man. When the men try their hand at seduction, they construct dirty stories of rape and violation. They get their kicks from submission, not passion, which is what these women are seeking. As the story continues to unfold, and then fold back, it becomes clearer and clearer that the main thrust of Park’s subversion is how men see the world, specifically how men see sex, and how misleading and wrong their perspective is.
On the Bill: The Handmaiden. 7:30 p.m. November 29–December 1, International Film Series, Muenzinger Auditorium, University of Colorado Boulder, 1905 Colorado Ave., Boulder, 303-492-1531. internationalfilmseries.com.