The Handmaiden :: The Opposite of Pornography…

I can't wait to see The Handmaiden again. It's such a gorgeous, glorious, consistently surprising story of women and men and love and betrayal and sex and storytelling and power and pornography and love again that not to watch it repeatedly at the cinema would be to needlessly punish oneself.

The Handmaiden is probably my favourite kind of story — one of those that's told repeatedly and from different perspectives; one that you revisit, each time discovering more and each time getting closer to the truth.

In essence, it's the story of a young thief named Sook-Hee and a dashing but slippery Fagan figure masquerading as a count, who together plot to steal the fortune of a beautiful heiress. But of course these people are thieves, so no one is to be trusted. Then of course, there is love. Aaaah, love.

People will talk about the graphic sex scenes in The Handmaiden — as well they might; they are extremely graphic and in these dark days dominated by fake this and fake that, they are quite shockingly and clearly not fake, and they go on for ages — but what's even more striking about the film is its portrayal of love. Falling in love has rarely been communicated so convincingly, or so lovingly, on film.

Indeed, for me it's the depth and believability of the central characters' love for one another that enables the film and its protracted sex scenes to wriggle out from under the inevitable accusations of gratuitousness. That and the fact that sometimes the sex is crucial to the story, such as in the film's final scene when an item till then associated only with pain is delightfully repurposed, and a curse is lifted in the process. For me, the sex scenes also stand as a contrast to the real pornography in the film, which comes in the form of bizarre sex shows built around forced readings of antique erotica, for men who do not care.

There is no pornography without exploitation. And there is nothing pornographic about love.

Cineville - Handmaiden - oral pleasure

I don't want to say anything else about the plot — you must go see it. You really must, unless you're particularly prudish. The film has no qualms about sex or violence, so if you do, you'll probably be made to feel pretty uncomfortable. But frankly, you should grow up and go and see it anyway, you lily-livered wretch. Oh, how I pity prudes. What small lives they must lead. 

So yes, The Handmaiden, in my most humble opinion, is a work of uncompromising genius. It's directed by Park Chan Wook, the only other film of whom I've seen in Oldboy, but after The Handmaiden, I mean to seek out the rest of his work immediately. 

Heart-stoppingly beautiful, mind-bogglingly meticulous and compared to the vast majority of films released into this world, on a whole different level in terms of storytelling. And great storytelling is the opposite of pornography. 

Oh, I also love the fact that we know in the first ten minutes of the film that Sook-Hee has a good soul because she tells us that if she could, she would breastfeed all of the abandoned babies that her and her band of thieves sell to the Japanese.


The Handmaiden also has a phenomenal trailer, one that gives you a great idea of the tone and style of the film, teases you beautifully but gives nothing important away.



The Viewing

As I took my seat for The Handmaiden, I met a man I'd never met before, but someone I'd actually wanted to meet since before I came to Amsterdam. He was sitting behind my seat with his coat draped over the back of my chair. Imagine that.

Afterwards I went for a drink, not with that man as he disappeared (not literally), but with some other people from the viewing, including a woman named Katie who had organised the evening. The evening was part of a series of special screenings shown under the Cine Expat banner, where non-Dutch speakers get to see foreign films with English subtitles. 

It was the first such event that I'd managed to attend and I'm very glad I did. For not only was the film immediately one of my favourite films of all time and one of the most immersive and unexpected cinematic experiences I can remember since seeing Underground in 1995, but also, I met some very interesting new people. One of them is a man with a name like a Brazilian footballer who can get me some MDMA, of which I am an extremely enthusiastic advocate.

It was a beautiful night.

About the Author

I am Karl Webster. I wrote these words. If you liked them, you’ll be overjoyed to know that there are plenty more where they came from. So you should definitely sign up to my newsletter if you haven’t already.

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