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Years ago, when I got to thefinal scene of the Handmaiden

I felt betrayed by director Park Chan Wook

In that last scene where the two lovers finally escaped from male control

Park ruined everythingromantic and beautiful created before

by givingus - for lack of better word

lesbian pornography

You get the point

and it got me thinking

Evenwith the themes of female empowerment

does the indulgent nudity and explicit sex scenes

make theHandmaiden another male-lensed lesbian pornographicfilm?

But first, we should give well-deserved credit to the film's creative team along with

CJ E ntertainment for backing a film that is risky in the mainstream commercial sense

A true story

A North A merican film producer told me last year that they were putting together a thriller

with a lesbian couple lead but was forced to change the characters to be two sisters in order

to secure financing

because lesbian movies

justdon't sell

So, it's a lack of queer erasure by

CJ Entertainment which is the largest film studio in South Korea responsible for

awesomefilms like Parasite

that make the existence of The Handmaiden commendable

To put it into a somewhatridiculous context

it's like if Warner Brothersproduced an American lesbian movie

directed by say

David Fincher

So, you see.. The Handmaiden is pretty progressive especially in Asia

in 2014 when pre-production began

For that, let'sgive them a virtual mini heart

When asked about Park's approach to capturing lesbian experiences

and creating safe shooting spaces, Park said that

he collaborated with his longtime co-writer, a lesbian consultant, and the two lead actresses

He storyboarded extensively so that they could shoot quickly

and that there were no surprises for the actresses

Sounds respectful

But in thesame interview when asked about accepting a

role with explicit sex scenes actress Kim Tae-ri answers

Well, I had to think about it of course

It was quite troubling after a lot of contemplation to which I was able to

convince myself that this was what's required for the character

Perhaps a victim of translation but

you can see how problematic situations might arise from actresses needing to

convince themselves to perform explicit scenes on camera

It reinforces the troubling agenda

that female characters on screen are to serve men otherwise known as the male gaze

However, with a complex plot where characters hide their true identities, play roles, and manipulate

not only each other, but also us, the audience, The Handmaiden relishes in our misconceptions

So to answer if The Handmaiden is perpetuating male fetishes of lesbianism we need to first explore

if the movie is toying with our own assumptions instead

Notably our assumptions of gender

in which women are passive and naive and men are dominant and mastermind

Hideko's pervert uncleassumes fear can keep her in the house and performlive porn readings

The Count assumes both womenwill comply with its plans

But what we didn'tpredict

is that the two women have a third option

They fell in love with each other

and realize their own power to create a new narrative for themselves

by playing along with society's gender norms but manipulating these norms to their advantage

This brings us to the sex scene which Park uses as a turning point

to flip our assumptions

To be fair the startof the scene sounds like something from

pornhub.com

And similar to pornography, The Handmaiden preys on the humans' natural voyeuristic tendencies

The film is a game of glances a game of perspectives

In this meta-textual shot visually it looks like an 18th century painting except this

shot that looks like a painting is up to women about to paint

They even hold stillfor a few seconds for us so that we candigest this idea

And it's this consciousperformance that makes us wonder

if Sookee and Hideko are as passive as we're led to believe

Like Hideko's live readings

there isa clear boundary between the performerand the spectator

The flat cinematography in thefilm creates a theater watching experience where

the characters are the performers the creatorsof the arts

and we are the passive spectators

In fact when we watch the sex scene Hideko and Sookee know that their performance makes

our pupils dilate our hearts race

As much aswe are watching them they are watching us too

and even stringing us along

Like the sadistictendencies of the uncle and his friends

Hideko and Sookee are relishing in our discomfort that we have to watch the sex scene

with somany other strangers in the movietheatre

They also relish in our heartbreaks

when tsuki's narration dupes us into thinking that she was betrayed by Hideko

Yes, they laugh at us

We played right into their hands

And is this reverse in expectation of character building and gender norms

that make the twists in The Handmaiden so satisfying

In the extended sex scene continued in part two we realized the pornhub style performance that

we saw in part one develops into passionate love-making

Sookee and Hideko's unclothed nature

signifies that the playing has been dropped

Andwe see that they genuinely care for each other

Through their joined hands, Park shows us thegirl's journey towards liberation and an honestand equal partnership

The theme of self-liberationand empowerment is taken a step further here

than in the book Fingersmith

The books women'scharacters both continue playing their roles

in the counts plan. Their escape is a fantasy but in The Handmaiden park makes it a reality

And a beautiful reality that the men in the movie never achieve

Not only do the men fetishize women they also fetishize wealth and supremacy

For example the uncle who is Korean does so through

This Korean word whichI will not try to pronounce

basically itmeans racial worshiping of the dominant country

In a period of history when Korea was a colony of Japan, the uncle's fascination with Japan

adds an extra level of desire to consume Hideko - a Japanese with noble heritage

Building library that mixes British and Japanese styles

theuncle lives in an illusion in which he has been

elevated to this supposed Japanese and British beauty and superiority

This is a dangerous mindset to have

Anyways, slap on an anamorphic wide lens and park deludes us with operatic largeness

This samelargeness that renders Hideko immobile withinher uncle's constructed world

deluding herselfinto believing that she could not possibly escape

even though as we see the wall that she eventually

jumps over with Sookee is actually very low

Ironically, it's the men who end up forever trapped

in their own fantasies, their own world, their own constructs that was meant to imprison Hideko

This concept holds true in our world too

A system canbe demolished as much as a new one can be built

Although the men are successfully portrayed as villains the contention around

The Handmaiden's sex scene lies in the fact that Park Chan Wook is a male director directing

a queer woman's text

Had Park been a woman would these exact sex scenes been questioned as much?

Anti-pornography feminist Catherine Mckinnonwrites

Pornography makes women into objects Objects do not speak

Pornography permits mento have whatever they want sexually

It is their truth about sex

I suppose what Mckinnon says is why I felt the final nude sex scene with

the bells ruined the film

But upon rewatchingThe Handmaiden this year the scene gave me new meaning

It's true that no words are uttered notbecause the women are objects but because words

in their world and our world today hold littlevalue

There is an exchange in the second sexscene

whereby Sookee promises Hideko that she willnot betray her

But what does Sookee do the very nextnight?

Sookee still tells Hideko to marry the count as according to plan

So what we can take away from this is that

we should never make our partner promise anything important during sex because you

will literally get over

I'm kidding so perhaps to blanketly say pornography makes women into

objects is to strip power and autonomy away from woman itself and perhaps the

notion of the male gaze which is indeed a real problem is also limiting and outdated

as it intentionally gives power to men and deprives women the agency to gaze upon other women

And check out this other scene at the end of the film, Hideko's purposeful gaze at

the Count while holding Sookee's hand is the look of a person who is very much in control

and is anything but naive

So Hideko's assureddecision to use her uncle's belt to me really

is her own wish to repurpose the bells and explore her newfound sexual desires for Sookee

Though it does not excuse Hideko's behavior for going straight to the bells once they're in theroom

I mean come on how a romantic

Anyways thebalance symmetry here compared to the off-balance

shot in the other sex scene dismantles the social hierarchy amongst race and class

between these two women

Traditional gender ideasare also dismantled as the count lies but naked

on the floor while hiriku and tsuki happily and comfortably show off their beautiful selves

naked in their purest and truest human form with no more men around

No more gloves and no more costumes

Perhaps sarah waters puts it best when asked about park as a man directing herlesbian story

There is a paradox at the heart ofthe film Like the novel the film is showing women

trapped by male structures and trapped within the limits of male authored texts but it shows them

escaping from those things or using them using bits of them for their own pleasures really but

the film is is a male authored text in itself it knows that and it's very much a film about

the contradictions and certainly gives us a lot to enjoy visually the sex scenes do go

on a long time but the relish that Park Chan Wook brings to them is the same relish he brings to

things like gardens or staircases interiors of all kinds it's a beautiful beautiful film

And just as we're teased the sex scenes, Park cuts away as he knows he does not have the

authority to showmore and neither do we have the authority to seemore

Like Hideko withholding sex from the counts

after marriage and the uncle unsuccessfully begging for details of the wedding night sex

Hideko and Sookee only let us hear bells tinkling as they sail away to shanghai

Whatever happensnext is theirs to write

Although 1930s was thebeginning of a fascinating but tumultuous period for China

I think this calls for a sequel setin China don't you

But I'm just kidding because...

and there are no queer people in Chinaeither

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