Park Chan-wook’s 2016 Korean thriller The Handmaiden shows how we react differently to physical and emotional violence
In The Handmaiden, we actually see the emotional abuse, but we flinch more at the physical violence, when those fingers are chopped off.
Park Chan-wook likes his violence. In one of the most memorable scenes in Oldboy, a man cuts off his tongue. He’s asking another man for forgiveness. “I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll do anything. I beg you… If you want me to be your dog, I will.” On all fours, he wiggles around like a dog and wags his bottom, like a dog wagging its tail. It doesn’t work, so he licks the other man’s shoe. It still doesn’t produce the desired effect, so he picks up a pair of scissors and sticks out his tongue. The scene makes you wince because the close-up is not on the face or the tongue but on the hand holding the finger holes of the pair of scissors. We know the snap is going to come, but we don’t know when, and that’s the agonising part.
The Handmaiden is a gentler movie, in the sense that only fingers end up being chopped off and dropped into a bucket. Of course, this happens in a room whose shelves are filled with severed genitals (male and female) preserved in formaldehyde-filled jars, and there’s even a live octopus (an apparent hat tip to the one in Oldboy), but I guess one can’t have everything. In any case, the emotional violence in this director’s cinema is as excruciating as the physical violence. It’s just that spurting blood and dismembered body parts (i.e. the results of physical violence on screen) make us cover our eyes, whereas the results of emotional violence produce reactions that are far less extreme. Think about it. When Ingrid Bergman is being gaslighted in Gaslight, we say, “Oh, poor thing!”, but aren’t we really watching a mind being dismembered, as opposed to a body part. Why, then, this diminished response?
Before we get to the scenes of emotional violence (and there are many) in The Handmaiden, let’s look at the set-up. The film is adapted from the Sarah Waters novel, Fingersmith, but moves the setting from 19th-century Britain to 1930s Korea, which, at the time, has been under Japanese occupation for two decades. A conman who calls himself “Count Fujiwara” enlists an impoverished young woman, a thief’s daughter named Sook-hee, in his scheme to swindle Lady Hideko of her vast wealth. Sook-hee will insinuate herself in the Lady’s household as a handmaiden, persuade her to fall for Count Fujiwara. Then, says Count Fujiwara, “After marrying her there, and inheriting her fortune, I’ll declare her insane and lock her up in a madhouse.”
Nothing, of course, goes per plan, but let’s first examine the angle that Sook-hee is a thief’s daughter, a fact that is revealed via Count Fujiwara. After arriving at Lady Hideko’s house, he summons Sook-hee and tells her, “Everyone (back home is) talking about you... How you’ll be an even greater thief than your mum.” I was startled by this reveal. Firstly, it’s not very common to see the mothers of protagonists as “bad people”. And two, this plot point fits so beautifully into the film’s overall design of psychologically damaged women. In a flashback, Sook-hee asks the woman who raised her, “Did my mum cry before they hanged her?” The woman replies, “Your mother stole a thousand times, was caught just once, and died once. Did she cry? She laughed. Said she was lucky to have you before dying.” You’d think this revelation would have made the young Sook-hee emotional, but she throws her head back and laughs.
Now, consider the other flashback about another young girl: this time, it’s Lady Hideko, who is being trained by her uncle to read pornographic manuscripts to men who are prospective buyers of these books. The first time we see the little girl, she is being restrained by a nanny-figure and screaming, “I am not a rotten bitch! No, no!” Note how the scene is structured. We don’t see the uncle calling her a rotten bitch. We cut directly to the girl protesting that she isn’t one, which puts us directly into the psyche of this victim. She is whipped, told to sleep alone, and without a light. When she protests, the nanny gestures to the outside and says, “In there is a man the size of an ogre, who can’t stand the sound of girls screaming. If he hears you, he’ll burst in through that door after you… He’ll smother you with his giant body.” Even this story, with its hints of asphyxiation and rape, seems to have been drawn from one of the uncle’s “books”.
These two emotionally abused women — Sook-hee and Hideko — drive this mind-boggling story, which twists and turns all the way from male gaze-infused lesbianism to female emancipation. That’s what drew the director to this material. He told Jezebel, “Those reading scenes (in which Hideko is forced by her uncle to read erotic passages to an audience of men), that’s just male gaze. It’s a film that says how violent this male gaze is, and as a victim of that, how much trauma it caused Hideko. And we’re sympathizing with her. Metaphorically speaking, these reading scenes are like scenes of gang rape.”
And yet, if we actually saw the depiction of gang rape on screen, or even rape by a single perpetrator (like in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, which was discussed a few columns ago) we’d react so much more viscerally. I find this interesting because filmmakers — especially those who specialise in suspense/horror — often “hide” the monster, with the logic that what we cannot see is scarier, because it makes us imagine something far worse than anything that can be shown on screen. But in The Handmaiden, we actually see the emotional abuse, but we flinch more at the physical violence, when those fingers are chopped off. It’s truly strange how art works.
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
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