Is eroticism fashionable in the cinema again? Is it valid to admit wanting it in the darkness of the auditorium – like fear at a horror film, or happiness at a romcom, or sadness at a weepie?
The question arises from Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, which is out next month. Intricate, intimate, gorgeously detailed and bejewelled, it is the Korean director’s brilliant version of the novel Fingersmith by British author Sarah Waters, with the setting changed from Victorian London to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule.
A phoney nobleman, “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) intends to seduce Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the beautiful heiress niece of a hideous plutocrat who lives in a gigantic mansion and forces her to read pornography aloud to his dinner-jacketed male guests; Fujiwara schemes to get a young criminal, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), employed as her handmaiden, so that she can persuade Hideko to accept his plan to run off together and elope. Instead Hideko and Sook-hee find themselves explosively attracted to each other.
The great thing about The Handmaiden is that it is wildly erotic, a sexiness intensified and weaponised by the movie’s twists of double-cross, triple-cross and point-of-view shift. Since its premiere at Cannes last year, it has been described as an “erotic thriller” – which is perfectly accurate, as it is both thrilling and erotic, but misleadingly calls to mind the neon steaminess of Hollywood movies such as 9½ Weeks and Body Heat.
The Handmaiden is closer to the high style of art-erotica from the 60s and 70s, an era that gave us Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast and, on a less rarefied level, Just Jaeckin movies such as Emmanuelle and The Story of O. (It’s not dissimilar to a more recent Korean period film, E J-yong’s Untold Scandal from 2005, which was based on Dangerous Liaisons.)
Rave reviews of The Handmaiden have generally been careful to say that it’s not just erotic, or that the eroticism is a part of a larger ingenuity, or that the eroticism is the handmaiden to something grander. But is there anything so wrong with just being erotic?
It’s a question worth asking as the Fifty Shades franchise disintegrates miserably. The first (very mediocre) film, directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, got some contrarian praise, on the basis that it was a campy, self-aware pleasure. An actual viewing of the film revealed this to be an unsexily naked emperor, although the second film, being even worse, might bolster it in retrospect. Admittedly, the dirty bits of Fifty Shades were not described as “boring”– the traditional way critics attempt to dismiss eroticism. (I have heard this lame putdown trundled out after movies as various as Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs or Gaspar Noé’s Love). Maybe there just wasn’t much there to be bored (that is, secretly aroused) by.
Video review of 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey
The Handmaiden deploys all kinds of eroticism, implicit and explicit: there is a sensuality in the surfaces and textures, glittering gems, unripe peaches and that most symbolic of things, the secret compartment hidden in a wall or staircase. It is there in the rituals of mistress and servant, especially when Hideko petulantly complains, while in the bath, that she has a “sharp tooth” that is cutting the inside of her mouth. Sook-hee files it down with a thimble, creating a long, quasi-blowjob scene.
Sex is explicit in the grotesque task Hideko has carried out for her uncle since her youth: reading aloud from his selection of antique connoisseur porn, effectively as a kind of private theatrical advertisement to those gentlemen who may now wish to buy the printed original and luxuriate later in memories of this performance. There’s also a macabre trapeze display she has to perform with an artist’s male dummy.
The third layer is the sex itself: and in the manner of classic Victorian erotica, the giggling maid shows the dreamily seductive but apparently innocent mistress the kind of thing she can expect from her bridegroom on her wedding night (“Will he really be as tender as this?”; “He’ll touch you like this … ”). It’s something to compare with Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle (or Blue Is the Warmest Colour), which had an extended, though more straightforward and less gamey scene with Emma (Léa Seydoux) and Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) making love continuously for about six minutes; or possibly the sex scene between Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, or Joan Chen and Anne Heche in Donald Cammell’s Wild Side.
But the nakedness in those sex scenes is a gendered representation. In the cases of The Handmaiden, Blue Is the Warmest Colour, Mulholland Drive and Wild Side, the directors are all men. And rightly or wrongly, many gay women saw in Blue Is the Warmest Colour nothing more than the traditional straight man’s girl-on-girl fantasy, a perceived failing felt the more keenly because it was supposed to be unadorned and real. Yet the sex in The Handmaiden is not burdened by this air of authenticity: it is stylised and furnished as a period drama, and an occult fantasy.
As for male gay eroticism in the cinema, there has traditionally been something fiercer and more aggressive in it: Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour has two men in adjacent prison cells, sharing cigarette smoke through a hole in the wall, jerking off, and escaping into fantasy, faced with the aggressive voyeurism of a prison guard. Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane is violent, and the affectless atmosphere of cruising colours the experience of gay men’s sexuality in Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By the Lake. Movies tend to find something more unpunctuated in the physiology of gay women’s sexuality, although John Cameron Mitchell’s comedy Shortbus found a trans dimension to pleasure that challenged these distinctions.
Feminist criticism has challenged the notionally “value-free” or “equal” nature of the heterosexual sex scene, and this critical reading had a new lease of life with the revelation that Bernardo Bertolucci, in shooting Last Tango in Paris, failed to tell Maria Schneider what was going to happen to her in the supposedly improvised sex scene he had arranged with Marlon Brando in advance.
What makes the eroticism of The Handmaiden so seductive is that it’s a celebration of female sexuality that elegantly, if tacitly, solves the eroticism-or-porn question by making the lead characters’ love affair something that takes them away from literal porn. Their love will free them from the dungeon of dirty books that Hideko has had to read aloud by order of her abusive uncle.
The eroticism of The Handmaiden is important – perhaps the most important part of the film. The action takes place in a wilderness of mirrors, a theatre of deception and masks – a world in which sex is the one thing that is always sincere, always real. It is not a style accessory, but rather the linchpin. It is what creates a co-conspiracy of freedom. Now that porn has become democratised and ubiquitous on phones and laptops, it is enjoyable to see old-fashioned, high-production value, dramatically enhanced eroticism. It is not about desire, so much as pleasure.