Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Handmaiden. It also talks a lot about sex, so NSFW.
The Marquis de Sade was a terrible writer.
The original icon of libertine sexuality and blasphemous enemy of the state has been described in many ways – writer, aristocrat, pervert, political revolutionary, and unlikely free speech advocate. Yet the label that seems to escape him in general conversation, and the one he deserves the most, is hack. De Sade’s prose is filthy, often upsetting and relentless in its sadism, but it’s also just bad writing. Whatever you think of the content – and everyone from Angela Carter to Andrea Dworkin to John Waters has their opinion on its merit – it’s tough to read the prose itself as anything other than grimly tedious. Indeed, it’s often so desperate to shock that it can have more in common with the average YouTube comments section than its contemporary erotic counterparts.
In The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s glorious adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel Fingersmith, de Sade’s shadow looms large over the lives of its ensemble. Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), practically imprisoned by her uncle turned betrothed, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), acts as a reader, publicly performing for men invited to the luxurious abode of her family, reciting the erotica Kouzuki hoards in his expansive library. The men watch from the steps, enraptured by the beauty before them – a perfectly coiffed ‘innocent’ who confidently reads the most sensuous of works. She acts out scenes, completely part of the moment, and in one shocking moment, recreates a climax of auto-erotic asphyxiation with a life-sized wooden puppet. This is a ritual the men prize, and Lady Izumi is the ultimate object to covet. It almost doesn’t matter that what she is reading is bad. It’s described as “Sade-esque”, which Uncle Kouzuki means as a compliment, but mostly it’s a collection of florid abstracts and chuckle-raising metaphors – “lady’s jade cave”, anyone?
Women are secondary to men’s sexual pleasure, so goes patriarchy, and so is the constricting force of both Hideko and her deceitful right-hand woman Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri). Hideko is instructed in the art of narration by her book obsessed uncle, whose tongue is permanently blackened by the ink he uses for his work, but shielded from the acts within the countless pages. She has knowledge of immense acts of pleasure, but her uncle seems unmoved to practice with her. For a man so defined by his infatuation with sex as a literary artform, he doesn’t seem to have actually had any. In one of the closing scenes, where the audience finally gets a glimpse into the basement, we see shelves of preserved body parts, not unlike the anatomy collection of the Surgeon’s Hall. An octopus lurches in a too-small tank, evoking The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, a famous Hokusai print of a woman sexually entwined with a pair of squid. It is implied that this creature was used as punishment against Hideko’s rebellious aunt. Even in reality, Kouzuki’s view of sexuality is rooted in the fantasies of the page.
Kouzuki, in between torturing Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), begs for details of his wedding night with Hideko. While the audience sees the reality of the night, Fujiwara spins a more sensuous tale, devoid of gritty details but in line with his previous declarations of love to her – practiced, floral in language and apparently Western in origin. This isn’t enough for Kouzuki, who demands more, but what he wants to know is more anatomical than mere passion. He relishes descriptions of the body and its functions, even the “viscosity and transparency of her vaginal discharge”. To quote the very strange Ridley Scott film The Counselor, “it’s too gyneacological to be sexy”. Kouzuki has read the biological details but he remains baffled, or possibly just uninterested, in the action.
Kouzuki’s erotica is for men’s enjoyment. Even in the scenes where women’s pleasure is described, or the man’s satisfaction is reached during literal death, the intended audience is clear. The sex depicted is filled with kink – strangulation, auto-erotic asphyxiation, ben wa balls – and decidedly “unconventional”. The mere act of attending a public reading such as this is shown as the height of societal decadence and the ultimate display of power and wealth. Men beg to be whipped by Hideko, then struggle to hide their erections as she reads. Other than Fujiwara, we never see any of them engage in sex with her, or any other woman. For Fujiwara, sex is a means to an end, another way to secure power and wealth. It is hinted that his pursuit of this is a means to compensate for lack of sexual prowess (and penis size). He is rough, uncaring, and claims women prefer to be taken by force. It does not cross his mind that sex would be an excellent way to claim power. Fortunately, it does for Hideko, and when she seduces him, she barely conceals the rolls of her eyes as he desperately suckles at her breasts, lost or just confused.
While her uncle is a wannabe scholar, it is Hideko who is the true student of his collection. While lacking in practice, she is knowledgeable in technique, and cannot help but take over when Sook-hee’s own seduction of her delves into the heights of passion. Their extended sex scene is a rarity in cinema – long, graphic, noisy, varied and radical. They don’t just kiss – they change positions, they slurp and scratch, they scream with unbridled passion in a way that inspires awe. Surprisingly devoid of the male gaze, given the director, it’s a scene where two women, one of whom has been moulded to be the audible vessel of pleasure for men, completely separate from the act itself, put into practice everything they’ve been denied. It’s pleasure free of men, the kind they desperately want to see but lack the imagination to enjoy it without a narrator or illustrations. The camera watches, but it merely records what it sees, free of men’s preoccupations. After all, how often do you see rigorous scissoring in a major motion picture?
As The Handmaiden ends, Sook-hee and Hideko have escaped the men who controlled them and join in ecstacy, the decorative balls that had once been a form of punishment used for pure pleasure, just as it was depicted in one of Kouzuki’s favourite stories. He has died, along with Fujiwara, whose fingers were lobbed off and tossed into an ice-bucket, but his last words are relief that he gets to die with his cock intact. Such a shame he never got to use it properly, but The Handmaiden is unconcerned with men. In the world of smothering constraint and abstract sexuality, they never knew how to do it anyway.