Pleasure / pain and The Handmaiden -- does a film have to be difficult to be good?
The re-release of The Handmaiden this year in the UK has seen the film, first released in 2016, enter mainstream culture.
Watching the trailer, I expected a jarring, visually rich but conceptually difficult film, punctuated by Stravinsky-esque music that would send the violin bow tripping and sliding over a bridge of strings, in parallel with violent and awkward scenes. To my great surprise (and relief), The Handmaiden is not only fluid in its telling of a rather complicated plot, but also rather funny, at times even veering into slapstick comedy. It's won popular and critical acclaim both at home and abroad, nominated for the Palm d’Or at 2016 Cannes Festival and winning the Grand Prize at the 53rd Baesang Arts Awards in Seoul earlier this year.
The Handmaiden is Park Chan-wook’s retelling of the story Fingersmith, a novel written by Welsh Sarah Waters published in 2002. Originally set in Victorian era Britain, Park relocates the handmaiden’s tale to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule. Vaguely speaking, Park is faithful to the three-part storyline set out by Waters; and you’d be surprised at how effortlessly the old narrative slips into its new surroundings, the geopolitical and cultural background further augmenting existing themes of power, hierarchy and sexual suppression.
Most people I know who have seen The Handmaiden have greatly enjoyed it. And what’s not to love?! Sumptuous interiors, lavish costumes, steamy scissoring… However, some have said something along the lines of “I really liked it, a shame it’s self-orientalising”. And it has given me pause for thought. Of these people, and perhaps there are many, I believe that they are suspicious of the ease with which they were able to enjoy The Handmaiden, and have concluded that this is probably because it is a Korean film made for a Euro-American audience. I can see what they mean; there is certainly a similarity in the visual satisfaction one derives from watching a Zhang Yimou film, a director who is veritably accused of self-orientalising. However, regarding The Handmaiden, my fear is that ‘self-orientalising’ has become another popular defamation to be bandied around in the hope of being ‘culturally-correct’. Don’t get me wrong, there is a serious need to keep updating ideas we take for granted – a great example being that both The Economist and Indiewire use “East meets West” lexicon to review The Handmaiden  - urgh. But using buzzwords like “self-orientalism” without much consideration is also a pitfall to avoid. Such a comment seems to commit the film to some sort of commercially driven, culturally contaminated program, and so disregards it of serious critical analysis.
I’m no academic, but I think they are too quick to judge.
For a solid definition, ‘self-orientalism’ is an extension of Orientalism that the ‘Orient’ itself participates in, perpetuating its construction and reinforcement. The illicit and erotic relationship between Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) and Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) could be perceived as a form of exoticism played upon by Park Chan-wook, perpetuating the illusion of the sexually permissive and liberated ‘Oriental’ woman, an image conjured by the Orientalists of the 18th Century (Delacroix, Lord Byron, Ingres). Without having read the book, one could be forgiven for being suspicious of the sexual perversion that writhes in the undercurrents of the film, gradually emerging to show its bulbous-cephalopod head in Uncle Kouzuki’s (Cho Jin-woong) pleasure-torture chamber. But you’ll find that the lesbian orgasms and pornographic readings are all borne from between the covers of Waters’ novel. They are not purely imagined by Park in order to exoticise and entice the ‘Western’ viewer. Even the black ink-stained tongue of Uncle Kouzuki is an accurate rendition of scholar Christopher Lilley from the pages of Fingersmith. Ok, ok, so the octopus wasn’t included in the novel. But not only is the octopus the director’s personal nod to Oldboy (2003), a cult classic, but it conveniently features heavily in Japanese pornography, the most famous of which, Hokusai’s ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’, makes an appearance. Is this self-orientalism, or just clever adaptation? It seems to me that Park has sought to stick as close to the original text and its aesthetics as much as possible. In a guardian interview, he appears to truly identify with the universalities of physical sensation and human emotion, so deliciously told and inspired by Waters.
I also think there is perhaps a misreading of the period, which at a second glance would appear to be a maelstrom of cultural transmission. This film is not just a case of ‘Asia’ being ‘westernised’, a Korea kowtowing to some kind of Western cultural supremacy - the classic, and ultimately out-dated interpretation of early 20th Century China, Japan and Korea. We would be perpetuating the concept in thinking that it was.
Many Korean intellectuals in the 1930s were fascinated by Japanese civilisation, and admired elements of European culture that had filtered through with it. An Asian actor dressed in European costume will always stir the proverbial hotpot. But Gentleman’s dandy suit, and Lady Hideko’s dainty gloves would have been perfectly in keeping with the time. The half Japanese-half English fortress is I think not a product of cinematic self-orientalising, just as you can genuinely find neo-classical columns and newly built 17th Century chateaus scattered about the Chinese countryside. Starkly bizarre and amusing it is, but my point is that nothing in The Handmaiden is being explicitly made up or twisted to amuse the contemporary Euro-American audience. I believe that Park has found a genuinely fascinating period that intensifies and amplifies the story – so sit back and let the ripples of pleasure wash over you, without politically-correct guilt.