The Erotic Nature and Lesbian Power of The Handmaiden

We often talk about oppression. Oppression is the inescapable result of any given power structure. And the only way to eradicate oppression is to fight the powers that be.

It is no great secret that men both currently and have historically oppressed women. This is precisely what the film The Handmaiden seeks to address. The work is adapted from Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, a novel that depicts the conning of a Victorian Era heiress. Though in the film the setting changes to Korea under Japanese colonial rule. The film was directed by Oldboy mastermind Park Chan-woo and is a dazzling tale of revenge, manipulation, and feminine liberation

The story begins in the 1930’s, some fifteen years into the Japanese occupation of Korea. At the time, conflicts between the two countries seemed stable given the underlying racial tensions. It is in this political climate that we are introduced to Sook-Hee, a young Korean gold digger who works alongside con artists to raise abandoned children to become pickpockets. She is chosen by a man falsely titled Count Fujiwara and is tasked with assisting in duping a Japanese heiress for all her worth.

The heiress, Lady Hideko, is orphaned and shunned from the world in a luxurious mansion by her uncle, who plans to marry her for a fortune. She's trapped in a scenario of unrelenting frustration, yet she remains docile—or so it seems. Lady Hideko’s uncle, Kouzuki, is a bibliophile whose preferred literary genre is erotica. In the film, there are references to shunga—rare, erotic painted hand scrolls. He often puts Lady Hideko to work reading erotic texts for aristocratic men in hopes that they will purchase antique books much like her deceased aunt was forced to do. Ultimately, Uncle Kouzuki amounts to a fetishist with a hungry, sadistic desire that is brought to life in his extreme forms of recited storytelling.

From start to finish, the film is awash with lush and wondrous landscapes, gorgeous architecture, and exquisitely casted female actresses, but it is the objectification of women that remains poised at the forefront of the films exploration. The film reinforces the male gaze by setting an erotic tone but to no avail. As the narrative flourishes, the missing pieces of the puzzle become clear creating a feverish backlash to the gaze that is rather comedic and impressive.

The Handmaiden is told in three parts—each from a different perspective. Though the resulting three-hour run time is rather exhaustive, it paints an effective portrait of the narrative to destroy presumptions.

It would seem that characters gain certain multidimensionality when witnessed through three separate lenses. The stories we typically ingest are one sided. When told in this tri-fold manner, it is as if the stakes for each character are heightened.

This is certainly the case for the film’s various women, each of whom exhibits a calculating sort of deviousness that traces almost on perfection.

In spite of having been directed by a man, we find two of these women entangled in a lesbian love story for the ages.

In many respects, the resulting lesbian eroticism can be seen as the film’s provocative centerpiece. The scene in question is a sex scene between the two women that at first is borderline fetishistic.

As the scene unfolded, I found myself wondering, “how far will they go?” as they began engaging in gentle kissing and nipple play. “Ooh” and “aah’s” lead to an awkward attempt at oral sex.

During the second part of the film, Lady Hideko tells her story, offering us further insight into their sexual relationship. I was truly surprised and immediately counted it among the most powerful sex scenes I have personally ever witnessed simply because it keeps going, and going enveloping in the beauty of carnal desire.

The passion on screen emanated out into the theater, highly erotic and resonating. It was exemplified by the snickering from some of the moviegoers. Others trembled in quiet awe.

The Handmaiden tackles the oppression of gender and sexuality simultaneously by bringing a lesbian relationship to the forefront. The role of gender’s unequivocal manifestation in designating authority is a clear point. The men in the film become minor characters in this tale of lust and power.

What most people will hear about The Handmaiden is that it is a pervert’s lesbian daydream. Only a masterful filmmaker like Chan-woo, whose previous tales of violent revenge such as Lady Vengeance, Thirst, and Stoker hint at his feminist ideology, could be capable of producing a work that is as sexually charged as it is empowering. It's the unifying power of love between these women that sparks an overhaul to the systemic oppression they face.


Joey Molina is a body genres aficionado that enjoys cupcakes and donuts.