Is eroticism fashionable in the cinema again? Is it valid to admit wanting it in the darkness of the auditorium — like fear at a horror film, or happiness at a romcom, or sadness at a weepie? Instead Hideko and Sook-hee find themselves explosively attracted to each other. But is there anything so wrong with just being erotic?
The Handmaiden is the latest in a string of critically acclaimed lesbian films directed by male auteurs that reduce queer women's bodies to a beautiful spectacle. Warning: spoilers ahead. Sook-hee Kim Tae-ri and Lady Hideko Kim Min-hee are fully naked, facing each other while precariously balanced on their knees. Their beautiful, lithe bodies are arranged in perfect symmetry, just like the room around them. The scene is an immaculately arranged tableau.
When The Handmaiden was released in Korea this past summer under the title Ah-ga-ssi , an American friend who had seen it there told me about the deafening shock and discomfort it elicited among its conservative audience. She had seen it in the coastal town of Yeosu—an approximately four-hour drive from the more progressive and urban Seoul—where even slight public displays of affection may warrant a public slap on the wrist. But a lesbian erotic thriller?
His cult hit Oldboy includes a scene in which the actor Choi Min-sik eats a live octopus on camera. For all its narrative focus on the liberation of women at the expense of men, The Handmaiden struggles to depict female sexual desire outside the context of the male imagination. The Handmaiden is a sly, Russian-nesting-doll of a story, unfolding in three parts, from three different perspectives.