Our society tells us consistently that violence is less shocking than sex. Sex is the real taboo.
And by ‘sex’, I don’t mean rape. Movies are fine with showing violence that happens to involve genitals. While our movies will gleefully wash screens with blood splatter from every newly imagined torture, seeing two people passionately embrace — fluids and all — is squarely in the realm of the pornographic.
The Handmaiden, directed by Park Chan-wook, steps up to the challenge of demonstrating a nuanced, intelligent approach to making sex seem genuinely beautiful and authentic, but violence seem extreme and taboo.
The film is structured around three parts, with each part revisiting an overlapping time period. The first part sets up the basic story. There’s a plot by two con artists to swindle an innocent, naive, and pure noblewoman who lives with her cruel uncle. One will pose as a handmaiden; the other as a count. They will manipulate the noblewoman into fleeing the cruel uncle to marry the count, commit her to an asylum, and divide up the inheritance.
As is standard for this kind of plot, human emotions get in the way and it seems that the handmaiden and the noblewoman genuinely fall for each other. The noblewoman fears being too inexperienced for the count, and the handmaiden introduces her to kissing and foreplay. Thus the dilemma of the opening part: will the handmaiden go through with the plot to swindle the noblewoman?
The genius of this movie is in part 2. Having seen the plot unfold, the film asks us to revisit the plot but with additional details woven into the thread. We are forced to reinterpret all of the characters of part 1, even to the point of reinterpreting the plot of the two con artists.
Back in the 1980s, Gayle Rubin developed the idea of the ‘Charmed Circle’. It has subsequently appeared on every undergraduate gender studies syllabus since then, with students reciting the same key idea: that there is a sexual hierarchy in our society where some sexual activities are ‘charmed’ (sex within marriage, sex between opposite genders, sex for procreation, &c., &c.), while some activities are of the ‘outer limits’ (sex outside of marriage, sex between the same gender, sex for pleasure, &c., &c.). The Charmed Circle was designed to put into focus the object of her attack: the way society privileged particular mappings of sexual behaviour onto gendered bodies. We reward particular forms of sexual experience, and shame others. In Rubin’s utopia, it can be imagined, there is no Charmed Circle at all.
The Handmaiden presents a different utopia. There is a very clear sexual hierarchy presented: all heterosexual activity is presented as deviant and perverse. Men in this movie are incapable of intimacy, but use women’s bodies as masturbatory aides. Sex is done by men to women. But, most importantly, heterosexual sex is never shown on screen. Far from being ‘charmed’, it is the new taboo. It is violent, aggressive, and unnatural. None of the men has authentic, spontaneous, organic desires; instead, they have desires seeded and nurtured by a vile old man’s pornography collection. The old man is a frightening figure in this drama, both fostering these disturbing sexual fantasies and also punishing (through literal emasculation) anybody who tries to act upon those fantasies.
In the alternative, the secret and scandalous relationship between the noblewoman and the handmaiden is presented as the pure and angelic. The film presents a sex scene that is easily the most explicit that I have seen in a mainstream movie, and yet does it beautifully and sensuously. But it is still visceral. Where every heterosexual act results in blood, the noblewoman and the handmaiden end up covered in sweat and vaginal fluid.
(A quick note here: I spent five minutes trying to think of a term for ‘vaginal fluid’. I could not. That should tell you something about this movie. Even a supreme prude like me did not find the explicit sex scene to be vulgar or tawdry. It might also tell you something about our society where there’s nice euphemistic words for practically everything else except the biological produce of a woman enjoying herself)
The result is a very clever meditation on what sex positivity really means. It is easy to have a free-for-all attitude where anything goes between consenting adults. But this is going to overlook a lot of coercive features of our world, not least the roles of money and social security. It will also overlook the role that industries have in shaping our desires. The women in this movie lived under a pervasive pornographic culture, with men developing expectations about how sex should be performed and what pleasured women (one male character openly states that it is well-known women receive the most sexual gratification by being taken by force). For a movie with such an explicit sex scene, this is a decidedly anti-porn movie.
It is a beautifully crafted movie. One for the whole family.