Let’s Talk About All That Lesbian Sex in ‘The Handmaiden’

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.

In the first episode of Mad Men’s third season (it’s the season when Mad Men starts to get freaky) Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), the patriarch of the series’ central advertising firm, shows off a newly acquired 19th-century Japanese woodcut in his office. The print depicts a giant octopus performing oral sex on a naked woman, her head thrown back in rapture, her body bound by the creature’s long tentacles. “Who is the man who imagined her ecstasy?” Bert muses to Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), a new employee and a buttoned-up Brit to boot. “Who indeed,” Lane murmurs.

There are no men in The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, an actual woodcut made by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai circa 1814. And yet a man is what Bert thinks of when he looks at the picture — as if a woman’s pleasure only exists in the minds of men.

I was reminded of this scene after watching Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, and not because of the Korean director’s penchant for cephalopods. (His 2003 cult hit Oldboy includes a scene in which the actor Choi Min-sik eats a live octopus on camera.) Mad Men came to mind in a scene in which a book of erotica opens to reveal a strikingly similar image, perhaps even the same print, as the one on Bert Cooper’s wall. 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. Adapted from Welsh author Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, Park’s film moves the action from Victorian London to 1930s Korea, under Japanese occupation. A spritely petty thief named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) goes to work as maid for the pale, delicate Lady Hideko (Min-Hee Kim), an heiress who lives with her overbearing Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) in a stately mansion that combines elements of Japanese and Victorian Gothic design.

Soon, we learn that Sook-Hee has been commissioned to work for Lady Hideko by “Count Fujiwara” (Jung-woo Ha), a Korean conman posing as a Japanese aristocrat, who plans to marry Hideko, inherent her fortune, and swiftly send her to the madhouse. But the story takes one of many turns when Sook-Hee finds herself falling for Hideko.

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The first part of the movie documents their “courtship” in a series of erotically suggestive scenes. In one, we see the back of Hideko’s Victorian-style dress as Sook-Hee unfastens a row of buttons climbing up her spine. “All these buttons are for my enjoyment,” Sook-Hee muses in voiceover as she undresses her doll-like lady. Soon, Hideko is playing the part of the handmaiden, dressing Sook-Hee in her fine gowns; these scenes have the innocent yet charged atmosphere of a teenage slumber party.

(Here’s where you should tread lightly if you haven’t seen The Handmaiden; spoilers abound.) About halfway through, the film gives way to an explosive eroticism, casting off the confines of its earlier, muted sexuality like a proper English woman discarding her corset. Hideko invites Sook-Hee into bed with her; they begin kissing, under the guise of Sook-Hee showing Hideko what it will be like to kiss the Count. Sook-Hee moves on top of Hideko, kissing her breasts and moving down her body. The camera closes in on Sook-Hee’s face as she gazes between Hideko’s legs, then cuts away to the next scene.

We soon learn that Hideko has a secret of her own: She’s not a prim and proper lady who innocently wonders why a man would think of a woman in bed, of all places, but a cunning trickster herself. (Later, we discover that her uncle has made her dress in traditional Japanese gowns and read aloud from his collection of erotica — hence the octopus print — for an audience of potential buyers, all men.)

At this point, Park revisits Sook-Hee and Hideko’s first sex scene, but this time, the sex is wildly explicit. We see much more of the actors’ bodies than in earlier scenes, and from a variety of angles. At one point they 69; at another, Sook-Hee lifts her head from between Hideko’s legs to reveal a mouth practically dripping with genital fluids. Cue the scissoring.

Up until this point, The Handmaiden’s ingeniously layered plot, dazzling production and sound design, and sly humor had me rapt. But with this scene, all the carefully built-up tension of this sexy, transgressive love story goes slack. With a thud, the film plops us in the realm of male fantasy, like the famous SNL sketch that speculates Game of Thrones is run by a 13-year-old horndog.

The Handmaiden’s sex scenes have inevitably drawn comparisons to those in Blue is the Warmest Color, also directed by a man, and the sexual gymnastics in both films bear a striking resemblance. In the sex scene described above, in contrast to the earlier scene, the camera frequently pulls back to reveal both women’s bodies. And like Blue is the Warmest Color, the bodies of both women taking part in this love scene are young, beautiful, thin, and hairless. In both films, we rarely see sex unfold from the perspective of the participants in the midst of the act; rather, their perfect, intertwined bodies are a spectacle to behold.

The earlier, more suggestive scenes felt far more indicative of sex — or what makes sex hot — from a woman’s point of view, and they’re plenty pervy, too. In a standout scene, Hideko sucks on a lollypop while her handmaiden bathes her. When Hideko complains of a painfully sharp tooth, Sook-Hee fetches a thimble to file it down. The scene instantly becomes erotic as Sook-Hee runs her finger in and out of Hideko’s mouth while Hideko looks into her eyes, reaching out gently to hold onto her arm. For a minute or so, the only sound we hear is the scraping of thimble on tooth as the sexual tension mounts. In the screening I saw, the audience held its collective breath.

This scene is so much hotter than their later, frenzied encounter. (To be fair, that’s from the perspective of a heterosexual woman; your mileage may vary, although my straight, male colleague Jason Bailey also dubbed the scene “indubitably hot.”) And it evokes a far more psychological, female kind of eroticism than the man-pleasing spectacle of two hot chicks scissoring.

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What complicates this critique is the fact that The Handmaiden is a very good, very carefully constructed movie, and the sex scenes make narrative sense. The film is a series of secrets unbound, revealed to the viewer in a slow striptease; a slip here, a pair of stockings there. By the time we learn who each of the four characters really are, the clothes have come off completely. As MTV’s Amy Nicholson writes in her review, the film’s three nude sex scenes are all the more emphatic for the atmosphere of orderly constraint that surrounds them, and their choreography is in line with the film’s doubling motif: When Sook-Hee and Hideko 69, it dawns on Nicholson, “Whoa, Park picked this position ’cause, like, a 69 looks the same from both of their angles.

The performances of Kim Tae-ri and Min-Hee Kim — two very game actors —complicate things further, because they’re so impulsively watchable and so adept at interpreting the (often ball-busting) humor Park injects in his script. When the count compliments Lady Hideko at dinner, calling her “mesmerizing,” she calmly replies, “Men use the word ‘mesmerizing’ when they wish to touch a lady’s breasts.” During Hideko and Sook-Hee’s first fully nude sex scene, the two clasp hands as they grind back and forth; a stunned Sook-Hee, believing her lady to be a sexually ignorant prude, declares, “You must be a natural!”

By the end of The Handmaiden, the male dominance that threatens both Sook-Hee and Hideko has been overturned. On the New Yorker’s website, Jia Tolentino points out, “Sex proves liberating only for the women in the plot, not for the men.” (Other critics, like April Wolfe and Anthony Lane, express relief that the film isn’t as violent as Park’s others, happily taking the scissoring over the eating of a live octopus.) The women are stronger together: Once they wise up to the Count’s scheme, they hatch their own plan to send him back to Uncle Kouzuki’s creepy basement, where unspeakable things are known to happen. Then they steal away on a ship bound for freedom.

From one angle, The Handmaiden looks like an explicit comment on the position of women in film throughout the medium’s early history, as the studio system controlled by men began to produce a series of undeniably powerful women who delighted audiences that skewed female. Likewise, The Handmaiden gives us two beautiful women under the thumb of boorish, domineering men who soon take over the story and drive it forward — thus pulling the rug out from under those men who are so convinced they know what women want.

In other words, it’s not easy to dismiss The Handmaiden as exploitative, male-gaze-y trash. But the sense that Park is creating a progressive work of art by extending this kind of agency to his female characters makes The Handmaiden’s porn-ier impulses all the more disappointing. It’s like catching your most open-minded, liberal male friend sharing nude photos of an ex-girlfriend online. Et tu, bro?

I had a similar mixed reaction when Westworld premiered last month. I felt the story the HBO drama wanted to tell — of subjugated female cyborgs rising up against their makers and liberating themselves — was undercut by the many shots of their naked bodies. (Westworld is among fall’s buzziest new shows, so yeah, my take was a buzzkill. As Manohla Dargis writes in her introduction to the new edition of Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, “For feminists, movie love can never be blind.”)

Narratively, Westworld can certainly call itself “progressive”; visually, it screams, “This is for men.” Similarly, viewers of The Handmaiden can delight in the story of two women who steal away from controlling, perverse men to find personal and sexual freedom in each other. And yet our parting shot is one more scene of Hideko and Sook-Hee, fully nude, reenacting a scene from one of Uncle Kouzuki’s dirty books involving a pair of silver ben wa balls.

Only Hideko and Sook-Hee are in this final scene, and yet like Bert Cooper beholding that Japanese woodcut, I felt the sticky fingerprints of men all over it. “I picked it for its sensuality,” Bert tells Lane of his new work of art, “but also, in some way, it reminds me of our business.” That is, it reminds him that this image of female ecstasy was sprung from the mind of a man, like nearly all the images of women the advertising industry spat out in the 1960s.

Discerning viewers will remember where that print ends up: Under the arm of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), the secretary-turned-copy chief, who carries it with swagger to her new office at McCann-Erickson at the end of the show’s final season. At first, Peggy demurs when Roger Sterling (John Slattery) offers her the painting. “You know I need to make men feel at ease,” she says. “Who told you that?” Roger replies. No one needed to tell her. She’s been to the movies.