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Park Chan-wook's Critique of Moral Judgment: The Handmaiden (2016).


Park Chan-wook's film. The Handmaiden ([phrase omitted], Agassi), tells a story of seduction, manipulation, and revenge set during the colonial period in Korea. Though this is the South Korean auteur's first, and so far only, period-set feature film, it nevertheless develops themes around ethics and moral judgment raised in his previous work, including the films that comprise the so-called "Vengeance Trilogy" (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance [2002], Oldboy [2003], and Lady Vengeance [2005]), Thirst (2009). and Stoker (2013). In this essay. I will discuss The Handmaiden and show how this film posits, through critique, that the state of abjection constitutes a necessary precondition for moral judgment. I am interested in the problem of subjectivization and the manner in which it acquires legitimacy to accuse another of moral deficiency (reminding the viewer, perhaps, of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [ 1920] with its series of accusations and framed narratives). The four main protagonists in The Handmaiden, play out a melodrama of politically and culturally oppressed subjects of the Japanese Imperial regime. But by the end of the film, two of these four, both women, outmaneuver and liberate themselves from the men who attempt to manipulate them for their own sexual and financial gain. The film does more than tell the story of emancipation, however, in its critique of how the colonial subject acquires the power and legitimacy to judge the other. As we shall see. this capacity to judge and. by co-extension, the capacity to accuse the other of moral wrong-doing emerges when the colonial subject realizes him or herself to be an exception to the force of law and yet must operate within it. This capacity is embodied in Park's film by the Collaborator.

Based on the 2002 novel by Sarah Waters called Fingersmith, which is set in Victorian England, the narrative of Park's Handmaiden relates the story of Sook-hee/Okja/Tamako (played by Kim Tae-ri). a young woman who comes from a family of thieves and con men. The name she assumes is contingent upon the context and the language being spoken for with the implementation of colonial rule, as we know, Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and speak only Japanese. Sook-hee is brought to the vast manor of Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong), a rich book dealer, to become the handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Kouzuki's niece and heiress. As she is led toward the room by Sasaki (Kim Hae-suk). the older housemaid of the vast residence. Sook- hee is told that Kouzuki's connections to the colonial government give him access to electricity for use inside most of the rooms. We soon come to discover that the young handmaiden is in cahoots with Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who has been hired to teach Hideko the art of painting. Fujiwara is, like Sook-hee, Korean. They have colluded to seduce Hideko and then have her committed to an asylum so they can steal her inheritance. The two women, however, unexpectedly fall in love, placing these plans in jeopardy. Sook-hee becomes jealous when Fujiwara touches Hideko during their painting lesson. In turn, Hideko becomes enraged when Sook-hee remarks that she would let her marry the Count. When it finally comes time to bring Hideko to the mental institution, it is Sook-hee that is committed, shockingly for the viewer. As she is carried away, the doctors call Sook-hee "Countess." She looks helplessly at Hideko and Fujiwara, but they step back. Their faces indicate that they must have colluded as well, At the end of Part One of The Handmaiden, the victimized one is not Hideko, as was expected by the viewer, but instead Sook-hee.

Already one hour into the theatrical version of the film, Part Two reiterates a number of key events portrayed in the previous section but will fill in narrative details from the perspective of Hideko. Part One was narrated with the voiceover of the Korean handmaiden and Part Two will feature the narration of the Japanese heiress. It begins with a scene depicting Hideko, as a little girl, training to articulate the names of body parts, including "mouth," "shoulder," and "penis." As a young woman, she reads Kouzuki's pornography collection aloud before a small group of gentlemen, all fetishists and prospective buyers of his books, and she at times grotesquely reenacts their content. It is also here, during these readings, when Hideko sees Fujiwara for the first time. In a private conversation between Kouzuki and Fujiwara, we hear that Sasaki was the former's first wife and that he left her in order to "become" Japanese. "Korea is ugly and Japan is beautiful," Kouzuki remarks. The conversation seems to bring them into alliance in that both men were born to Korean families and are now passing, more or less, as Japanese (though Kouzuki probably is not aware of Fujiwara's background). Later the Count meets Hideko at night, coming clean to her about his identity as the son of a Korean farmer. He says that he waited three years, studying bookmaking and the painting of forgeries, in hopes that they would meet. Speaking in Korean. Fujiwara also discloses that he intended to seduce and marry her so that he could steal her inheritance. Instead of going through this plan, he proposes another one where they marry, thus granting Hideko freedom from Kouzaki. and then split the money. She proposes an amendment to his plan and requests that she be brought a new handmaiden who she can have committed to the madhouse in her stead. Scenes from Part One are then recounted from Lady Hideko's perspective, revealing her disdain for the Count. We see how Hideko. at first, attempted to manipulate Sook-hee to make her fall in love with Count Fujiwara, but was stymied because of her unexpected love for Sook-hee. After becoming frustrated with her handmaiden. Hideko tries to hang herself but is saved by Sook-hee. The heiress conies clean and reveals her plans to manipulate the young girl. They make plans to run off together. Entering into Kouzuki's library, they destroy his pornography collection and later have Sook-hee committed to the mental institution.

Finally, in Part Three of the film. Hideko and Fujiwara discuss their plans for her to steal Sook-hee's identity. Meanwhile. Sook-hee escapes from the mental institution with the help of her friends and family. After Hideko poisons Fujiwara, she reunites with Sook-hee. He is brought to Kouzaki. who tortures him with his bookmaking tools for letting Hideko and Sook-hee free and for the destruction of his pornography. Narrating his wedding night to the dirty old man. he lights a cigarette laced with mercury, whose fumes will eventually kill them both. The film ends with the two women escaping to Shanghai on a boat.

Like Sarah Waters's novel. Park's him is structured in three clearly delineated parts. While The Handmaiden follows the basic plotline of Fingersmith in Part One, in Part Two the film begins to diverge from the story told in the novel. Waters reveals rather surprising details about the upbringing of her main female characters by the conclusion of her story, whereas Park adds another dimension to the escalating drama between deceivers and the deceived by showing that the latter can also manipulate and dissemble. Confusion arises as to who cheats and who is cheated, shifting the terms for how viewers discern whether utterances are truthful or misleading. "Handmaiden Tamako," writes Sight & Sound critic Jonathan Romney, "has been sent by the Japanese 'Count" Fujiwara to prepare his seduction of Hideko, whose fortune he intends to steal, but her work as an undercover agent is far outdone by Hideko herself, who reveals layer after layer of duplicity from the moment we discover that her neurotic ingenue persona is in fact an elaborate performance" (Romney 2017, 64). Hideko and Sook-hee are not simply naive participants carrying out stratagems conceived by controlling men, but exercise subterfuge and utilize techniques of seduction and deception to become active agents of their own emancipation. In this. The Handmaiden differs from most of Park's previous films in its depiction of careful scheming born from resentment resulting in the realization of individual freedom.

Elsewhere I have shown how Park's films work with the melodramatic mode by radicalizing its most salient features from within. (2) Writings by Peter Brooks, Thomas Elsaesser, and Linda Williams have proposed that we think of melodrama, not simply as a genre category or a type of "women's cinema," but as a dominant mode of (American) narrative storytelling. Taken over from French theater in the eighteenth-century, melodrama undergirds all contemporary popular cinema, encompassing a set of modern means by which spectators can feel and think with fictional characters in moving picture narrative. If traditional means of moralizing have lost their legitimacy in scientific modernity, melodrama restores a sense of coherence to the void left by this retreat of antiquated mores from everyday life through its presumption of an invisible "moral occult" that must be interpreted from empirical signs: costumes, mise-en-scene, lighting, music, mute gestures, physiognomy. The increasing preponderance of melodrama, then, gives further proof of waning legitimacy of the sacred, particularly in its social and political representations. "We might, finally," Brooks writes, "do well to recognize the melodramatic mode as a central fact of the modern sensibility (I take Romanticism to be the genesis of the modern, of the sensibility within which we are still living), in that modern art has typically felt itself to be constructed on. and over, the voice, postulating meanings and symbolic means which have no certain justification because they are backed by no theology and no universally accepted social code" (Brooks 1995, 21). This sensibility, "within which are still living." spares us from directly confronting the horror of living in a world devoid of universal moral and ethical presuppositions. Human beings are not beholden to the authority of the church and the promise of faith, but understood to possess an individual inner being, unique and singular, that seeks expression in the world.

The aim of melodrama is to externalize and make legible this moral occult and. in turn, to constitute what is typically called "moral character," "psychology," or the "private self." The belief in the presence of a hidden moral occult compels the desire for it to be discovered, to determine whether an individual possesses a "moral compass" and to ascertain the truth of their moral personhood. In this ostensibly transhistorical enterprise, one's moralizing gaze seems determined to discover a moral occult that evinces a Manichean struggle between good and evil, personalities who play out discursive imperatives that transcend the self and are the site of societal contradictions and psychological drives. Melodrama successfully functions when the flat image of a character on-screen is transformed into a sympathetic, "fleshed-out" human being who feels resentment, humiliation, and dignity as consequences of their inner virtue. It restores faith in the belief that the other can be known and therefore judged. If morality is a crucial axis (along with other discourses such as race, gender, and sexuality) in which we taxonomize and, through this, consolidate the individual in modernity, melodrama is the means by which this taxonomization is made possible at all.

When asked what she thought about Park's adaptation of her novel. Sarah Waters comments that, "It didn't seem like an obvious match with Fingersmith, given the super-violence of Oldboy, but at the same time and the more I thought about the lushness of his film and the melodrama. I thought maybe it's not such an unlikely match" (Sullivan 2016). Park's adaptation may be characterized, as Chris Berry put it, as a process of "de-Westernization." or perhaps, as Jinhee Choi writes, adopting Hollywood style to tell local stories. (3) As the novel is adapted from Victorian England to colonial Korea. I am concerned with how the moral logic and structures of feeling delineated by melodrama are maintained from one context to the next. This traversal should be understood as taking place against the backdrop of shinpa theater, itself taken over from Japan during the colonial period, and its sentimental melodramatic forms. Among other elements that shinpa attempted to negotiate through its narrative forms was the expression of han, translated as "unresolved resentment or suffering," and which is key for understanding the ethical logic that connects abjection to agency. Nevertheless, my use of melodrama here allows us to understand how its metaphysics not only encompasses melodrama as a genre but also as a modern technique for producing and understanding the politics of affect. Within a historical world characterized through repression, particularly along interlocking axes of gender, class, and race, melodrama presents this world as a series of surfaces, where societal contradictions are written on bodies, objects, and spaces, and where character and persona are made visible for the spectator. Throughout The Handmaiden the viewer is meant to notice and interpret these surfaces: the two women's faces as Sook-hee rubs Hideko's tooth with a thimble, Fujiwara's ripe peach, the striking colors and striated patterns of the characters' clothes, the decapitated snake statue, a coiled rope in a circular hat box, two metal bells attached to a string, Kouzuki's eyebrows and his ink-stained tongue, the removable flooring of his reading room, the octopus coiled up in a tank below. All become signs that carry narrative meaning and provide clues that help the viewer understand the moral universe inhabited by the film's characters.

These signifiers in turn point toward a series of discursive binaries that structure meaning through the presence of the melodramatic. Sincerity-deceit, original-forgery, male-female, manipulator-manipulated, heterosexuality-homosexuality, public-private, exposed-hidden, Japan-Korea: such logics function to constitute the basic drama of the film's narrative, yet all are underpinned by the basic dualism between that which may be empirically perceived, the surfaces of things captured by the cinema technology, and that which must be deduced by the viewer. Surfaces are understood as interpretable, as giving way to sincere, private truths, betraying clues about the authentic self, and revealing the truth of nationality and gender. This capacity to discern, in turn, is reiterated through the ideological form of the cinema itself, manifest through the judgmental gaze of the spectator. These insights culminate in an act of moral judgment, one that seemingly must take place, so that the sovereign right of cinematic pleasure may be reiterated.

In a wide-ranging claim, Linda Williams writes that melodrama "most often typifies American narrative in literature, stage, film, and television when it seeks to engage with moral questions" (Williams 2002, 17). Williams pays particular attention to the spectacle of pathos and its framing of the injured body as one that is worthy of recognition. "The key function of victimization," she writes, "is to orchestrate the moral legibility crucial to the mode, for if virtue is not obvious, suffering--often depicted as the literal suffering of an agonized body--is" (Williams 2002, 29). Images of victimization and suffering (which embody the feeling of han) serve the aims of moral legibility, enticing audiences to think and feel with individuals in a narrative. Indeed, such images are most effective in mobilizing signs of melodramatic feeling in The Handmaiden). At the end of Part One, Sook-hee seems to have been manipulated to suffer in a mental institution. At the beginning of Part Two, a very young Hideko is forced, on demand by her dirty uncle, to familiarize herself with sex and pornography. When she reads the salacious literature in front of a group of leering men, Hideko is violently made complicit in her own objectification. These images of their victimization by the misogynist and sexist men around them function as signs of pathos, eliciting the sympathy and outrage of the viewer. The enticement toward sympathy in melodrama inevitably leads to the righteous demand for justice, for action, or even violent retaliation, that will recompense the grief and pain unfairly inflicted upon the virtuous.

Moreover, the viewer is invited to consider the political plight of Sook-hee and the two male protagonists, Fujiwara and Kouzuki, as Koreans oppressed by the Japanese Imperial regime. On the one hand, their oppression forces them to surrender to public forces that oblige them to hide or disavow their personal identity. Fujiwara remains an opportunist, aware of his upbringing as a low-class Korean but always exploiting every situation to his own benefit so that he may rise in stature. Kouzuki is clearly the most egregious in this regard in that he gives himself completely over to the comprised identity delineated by his Japanese colonizers. His admiration for all things Japanese and decision to relinquish his Koreanness makes him much less sympathetic, certainly for a Korean audience, in that he actively collaborates with the colonizers at the expense of the colonized. Signs of punitive justice appeal to the moral judgment of the viewer, made possible by melodrama, when Kouzuki's pornography collection is destroyed, when Fujiwara is repeatedly spurned by Hideko. and when both characters inhale lethal, mercury-laced smoke at the end of The Handmaiden. The film invites disparaging judgment of these men and its narrative punishes them with death for their betrayal of their national and ethnic-identity.


In this, Park's film takes part in larger debates around the historiography of collaborators and collaboration during the colonial period. (4) The term, "chinilpa" [phrase omitted] or a "friend of Japan," has become synonymous with betrayal and words such as "traitor" or "puppet." It invariably points to the past actions of individuals that supported the Japanese regime, at the expense of ethnic Koreans, and which remain unredeemable to the moral judgment of the present. As we know from history, Koreans who collaborated came from all sectors of society. Members of the ruling yangban class (like Kouzuki), landowners, and indigenous leaders who were friendly to Japan made efforts to convince their countrymen and women to facilitate the ideology and policies of the colonizing regime. Professors, writers, and artists perpetuated its indoctrinating messaging apparatus. Middle class Koreans who sympathized with Japan extolled and exploited educational opportunities to join the occupying government. Police officers who represented the colonizing regime arrested and tortured fellow Koreans who sought independence from Japan. The lower class (represented by the chunmin Sook-hee and Fujiwara) were less visible but engaged in their own self-disciplining and became informants for the Japanese administration. The history of collaboration suggests that collaborators' reasons for betraying their ethnic identity are indeed myriad, motivated by both egoistic and principled aims: from fear of punishment and unemployment to the belief that compliance with the ruling government would bring personal rewards and opportunities. (5) Moreover, some sincerely held the conviction that Japanese civilization was the superior one, such that, to quote Kouzuki once more, "Korea is ugly and Japan is beautiful." Nevertheless, regardless of their individual motives, chinilpa have been uniformly deemed sullied of national character and therefore to be scorned.

Since 1945, the indictment and purging of traitors was crucial for politically consolidating the liberated Korean nation-state. These processes cannot be separated from the vexed Cold War interests that resulted in the division of the peninsula, complicating the question of who gets to define collaboration and to what end. The United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAGIK), which functioned as a provisional governing body from 1945 to 1948, initially resisted the punishment of collaborators as their skills were thought to be useful for facilitating the normalization and transition of state power. President Syngman Rhee failed to prosecute collaborators in any meaningful way. for later when the Special Investigation Committee for Anti-National Activities indicted 293 individuals as complicit with the policies of the Japanese Imperial regime, Rhee released them of guilt. Many of these chinilpa in fact became civic servants and suddenly patriotic while exploiting anticommunist sentiments to undermine those who accused them of collaboration after Liberation. For many years, addressing the issue of collaboration was felt to destabilize national solidarity in the face of the threat posed by North Korea.

After the Korean War. the historiographic problem of collaboration did not become a matter of national concern until after the political upheavals of the 1980s and the democratic reforms of decade that followed. Activists during this time sought to challenge elitist narratives of colonial history and to recognize the struggles of the people against foreign powers in the modern era. Efforts to identify and name individuals continued, undertaken by the privately-run Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities, through the publication of a series of books including Chronicles of Pro-Japanese Collaborators (1991). 99 Pro-Japanese Collaborators (1993, in three-volumes). What are Pro-Japanese Collaborators? (1997). and Who's Who During the Japanese Occupation Period (2005). Roh Moo-hyun's administration reengaged with difficult issues concerning Korea's colonial past and proposed naming individuals who were sympathetic to Japan. In 2004, the Special Law to Investigate Anti-National Behaviors Under Imperial Japan was passed, setting criteria for individuals who may be deemed chinilpa.

These efforts culminated in the creation of a bibliographic encyclopedia, a project overseen by over one-hundred and fifty professional historians, of pro-Japanese collaborators in November 2009. In its three-hundred pages, 4,389 names were published, including controversial figures such as Yi Wan-yong. Yi Un. Ann Eak-tai, Park Chung-hee, and Kim Hwallan. Hwallan led the transformation of Ewha College to the world-class university it is today, while cooperating with the Japanese government to bring opportunities for its students. When Ewha commemorated the centenary of Hwallan's birth in 1999 with the "Kim Hwallan Award," anti-Japanists and anticolonialists protested the creation of the Award. (6) The classification of a collaborator was defined according to two types: national traitors and ancillary cooperators. According to Jeong-Chul Kim and Gary A. Fine.
The former category includes those who signed treaties to relinquish
Korean legal sovereignty to Japan and who directly harassed Korean
compatriots engaged in independence movements. The latter category
involves members of the Japanese colonial administration and those
scholars and artists who "demeaned' Koreans in order to justify
Japanese colonial rule of Korea as well as Japanese military invasions
of other Asian countries. (Kim and Fine 2013. 132).

The encyclopedia was intended to publicly and definitively reveal the scope and nature of collaborationist activities in modern Korean history. While a majority of Koreans supported the project, its publication was no doubt controversial. Right-wing Koreans demanded that the encyclopedia be banned and that a corresponding list be drawn for leftists who may be deemed pro-North Korean. Regardless of one's political stance, it is clear that the naming of collaborators has had the effect of revealing the ostensible truth of their moral character. Within this regime of knowledge, objective research gives way to moral judgment, to the delineation of victims and villains, and with it the politics of historiography and the ethics of reconciliation. (7)

This history of collaboration has received some representation in Korean cinema. Blue Swallow, a 2005 film directed by Yun Jong-chan and starring Jang Jin-young and Kim Joo-hyuk. tells the story of Bak Gyeong-won, the first Korean female pilot born in 1901 and who died in a plane crash in 1933. While Bak's character was treated sympathetically in the him, the historical Bak was a known collaborator, sparking controversy upon the film's release. More recently. Assassination is an action film from 2015 set in 1933. Starring Jun Ji-hyun, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, and other well-known stars, it tells the story of a small group of independence fighters who attempt to assassinate a Japanese commander and an opportunist Korean businessman. The film jumps between historical moments, before and after Liberation, connecting traitorous actions and disloyal decisions with their subsequent punishment and the rendering of justice. One year after Assassination enjoyed success as the second highest grossing film in Korea, The Age of Shadows, directed by Kim Jee-woon, appeared, starring Song Kang-ho as a collaborator with a conscience. Song plays a character caught between his position as a police captain for the Japanese who facilitates the subjugation of resistance movements and his own repressed Korean identity. In a particularly strong year for Korean cinema that included The Handmaiden and Train to Busan, The Age of Shadows came in at number four in gross ticket sales.

Melodrama underpins all of these films. In Assassination and The Age of Shadows, Korean independence fighters are abjected individuals who utilize violence to pursue ends that, in the name of human freedom, are always already just. These protagonists are movers of history, ready to sacrifice their own lives for their historically righteous cause. And when Koreans are the victims of violence, they gain in virtue in proportion to the spectacle of physical suffering and become heroic when they suffer for national ideals. This subject of "true feeling," Lauren Berlant has argued, produces outrage and the demand for justice, particularly when it cannot be realized through recourse to juridical law. (8) When, in The Age of Shadows. Gong Yoo's character is tortured and bloodied by a commanding Japanese officer for smuggling explosive materials to Seoul, his body becomes a melodramatic sign that solicits sympathy from the viewer. And when, in Assassination, Jun Ji-hyun's character momentarily contemplates killing her collaborationist father, the spectator is invited to sympathize with her sense of betrayal and abandonment. Through melodrama, Koreans fighting for independence, as represented in the cinema, gain agency because of their abject status within the Japanese colonial regime.

On the other hand, friends of Japan are deemed morally corrupted in Korean cinema, to be condemned at least as sharply as their Japanese colonizers. Not surprisingly, this judgment accords with the general sentiment toward chinilpa in political life, highlighting how melodrama undergirds the moral judgment of collaborators both inside and outside the cinema. Collaborators such as Lee Jung-jae's duplicitous character in Assassination decide to remain complicit with the policies and methods of the Imperial government, allowing the violent oppression and continued suffering of their compatriots. This decision is carried out without shame or guilt, inviting further censure by viewers. The collaborator reiterates the dichotomy of surface and depth that is crucial to the hermeneutics of melodrama, for one is compelled to "read into" the Japanese speech and gestures of the collaborator to find the ostensible Korean underneath. The profound doubts of Song Kang-ho's character in The Age of Shadows are precisely produced through this dichotomy, doubts that vacillate between the Manichean binary between good and evil. These period films reveal the extent to which contemporary judgments made about historical figures are informed by the metaphysics and moral occult of melodrama. As in the cinema, not only judgment, but also the truth of moral character, is produced by the present-day observer, by the one who seeks to secure certainty in the moral knowledge of historical figures.


The Handmaiden, like these films about Japanese collaboration, operates against the backdrop of melodrama in its narrativization of history. For despite the aesthetics of shinpa that are historically contemporaneous with the colonial settings of Park's film, its moral logic and structures of feeling are dictated nevertheless by contemporary expectations associated with the popular melodramatic mode. In this. Kouzuki may be deemed the guiltiest for the disavowal of his Korean nationality, family, and his unabashed reverence for all things Japanese. When Fujiwara tells his story, a young Korean man who works in Miss Boksun's stolen goods store/orphanage stammers and calls Kouzuki a "bastard." The ostensible presence of an invisible moral occult not only underpins how melodrama enables judgment of this character as corrupted but corresponds as well to the belief that the visible, public gestures of the film's characters mask the invisible truth of the Korean self. Like the actor in the cinema, like Fujiwara's counterfeit paintings, the collaborator behaves in ways that obsequiously seek approval and credibility from his or her observers. While acting in ways that remain complicit with their political and social context, he or she must keep the private, authentic self concealed, out of sight. Thus, as Fujiwara, Sook-hee, and Hideko try to outsmart each other, they put on personas--all the while collaborating with the Japanese, with each other, with the spectator--and put the melodramatic pleasures of interpretation into motion. This is all underscored by the fact that Korean actors play either Japanese characters or Korean characters playing Japanese.

On the other hand, the very structure of The Handmaiden may be read to interrupt these pleasures and the sense of moral certitude that underpins it. Rashomon-like, the two parts of Park's film provide the viewer with two perspectives on the same event, first that of Sook-hee and then of Hideko. When a close-up shot shows Fujiwara's hand as he touches Hideko's body during a painting lesson, at first the viewer is invited to sympathize with the hapless woman receiving unwanted caresses, knowing that she will be exploited to give up her financial assets. A shot of Sook-hee's disapproving face emphasizes the viewer's condemnation of Fujiwara's immoral actions. When this scene is shown again in Part Two, the dialogue between Fujiwara and Hideko reveals that they know they are being watched by Sook-hee (and co-extensively by the spectator as well). This perspective compels the viewer to shift his or her judgment, to think of Sook-hee as the manipulated and Hideko and Fujiwara the manipulators. Throughout the film, scenes that at first were presented voyeuristically are shown again and revealed to be observed by another character, who looks on moralistically. Looker and looked-at are not only reversed in these reiterations, but also the positions of the judged and those who judge.

Through these narrative twists, the totality of the parts that make up The Handmaiden constitute what Thomas Elsaesser calls a "mind-game film," a type of contemporary cinema that puts fundamental problems of modern subjectivity into relief. The mind-game film, a category which includes examples such as Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002) and Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010). typically tells its story non-linearly, involves multiple temporalities, and utilizes reverse causal and deferred action logics--ways of storytelling that tend to ease "us out of our habitual (but clearly failing) subject-centered individualism" (Elsaesser 2017. 3). Elsaesser later elaborates:
Cinema would then be the most advanced ('modern') prosthesis (or
machine) for appeasing and managing the inherent paradoxes, internal
contradictions and aporias of subjectivity. As meta-cinema, the
mind-game film is the form of cinema that renders these paradoxes and
dilemmas explicit and manifest, implicitly arguing that they need to be
renegotiated and updated, while remaining complicit with their
continued functioning, because operating from within, rather than
positioning itself (as a 'critique' from) outside. (Elsaesser 2017. 17)

The reiterations in The Handmaiden give insight into new possibilities, new forms of subjectivity, and new moral judgments not available to the viewer in a single narration of a represented event. If melodrama aspires to make explicit the moral occult of the modern individual, the mind-game film shows that this notion of the individual is always already multiple and fragmented. Melodramas of the fake and authentic give way to deceptions that undermine the discursive underpinnings of the melodramatic mode itself. In doing so, these twists, which occur not on the order of plot but of moral knowledge, make explicit a sense of radical uncertainty in the very act of judgment itself. Things are not only not what they at first seemed, but the conclusions derived from them turn out to be problematic and elusive.

Indeed, these uncertainties persist and are compelled to do so without resolution in Park's film. Contradictions inherent to melodrama are foregrounded by The Handmaiden (and most other films by Park), continuing only in order to delineate the limits of this dominant mode of moral reasoning. As in the logic of sovereignty famously formulated by Carl Schmitt, who articulated that sovereign power asserts itself at the threshold between legality and illegality, the aporias of subjectivity, which fall outside the norms of melodrama, that are made explicit by the mind-game film only come to the fore because they are produced from within melodrama. (9) The figure of the collaborator thus might be thought of as emblematic of this condition, the Korean who exists within the zone of indeterminacy between legitimacy and illegitimacy under the auspices of the Japanese Imperial regime following the Japan-Korea treaty in 1907. (10) Yet Kouzuki. in spite of the truth of his Korean "essential self," aspires toward sovereign power as he becomes ever more Japanese and identifies more fully with this "counterfeit" second self. "Real" Japanese versus "fake" Japanese: is such a distinction possible without recourse to the melodramatic mode? However, The Handmaiden also shows us that this contradictory subject position, produced through a dialectic of criticality and affirmation, prepares the way for representations of agency beyond its typically generic and habitual iterations. Critique then paves the way toward agency, one that is always already multiple and fractured, and seeks freedom from the discourse of the moralizing gaze. Yet this form of agency, within popular cinema, cannot arise outside traditional notions of subjectivity that are concomitant with melodrama, but emerge as these formulations of the moral self are problematized and brought to aporia. For while we may understand and sympathize with an agent who pursues subjectivity after the experience of victimization, by characters who embody han and who have lost their agency, the role of the collaborator in The Handmaiden reveals that this pursuit always already spans a contradiction. The abjection of the collaborator by definition compromises the political and ontological subjectivity of the agent, at the very moment agency is claimed. This is a highly contingent political subjectivity, always already under erasure, that nevertheless embodies contradictory possibilities of being.

If we are to accept that the twists and shifts in judgment produced by The Handmaiden allow for moments of critique, then we might begin to reread aspects of Park's film and understand their politics in a perhaps new way. One of these concerns the erotic and sex scenes. Some reviewers have singled them out as prurient and objectifying, asking whether, as Tom Robey does in his review for The Telegraph, The Handmaiden is "liberatingly erotic or a male wet dream" (Robey 2007). The two main actresses. Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri. both young and attractive, are featured in three sex scenes, one in each part of the film, as well as a number of other erotic moments. As the narrative unfolds, the representation of sex becomes increasingly explicit, from Sook-hee's thumb rubbing Hideko's tooth through her open mouth, to Hideko's simulated sex with a mannequin, to the increasingly lengthy, nearly pornographic representations of lesbian sex. In an interview with film critic Daniela Costa, Park responds to the charge that these scenes appeal specifically to the perverse pleasures of the straight male viewer:
But I have to say that I have made efforts so that this film won't be
seen as a film that is made for the male eyes, as it were. Because even
if it was say a queer woman who was the filmmaker making this film,
who's to say that she won't present a female body in a beautiful way
and who's to say that she won't depict these sex scenes and be honest
about the excitement these characters feel and to portray these sex
scenes in a realistic way. (Costa 2016)

Later Park remarks that the sex in his film was, "certainly not intended to fulfill some sort of male voyeuristic pleasure. I tried to make sure that that wasn't the case." These denials seem admittedly hollow, given the intrusive and leering quality of the shots. Yet if The Handmaiden performs a critique of melodrama and its underlying ethics, a critique of the ethics of the male gaze may help us understand Park's comments. For as we come to see Hideko and Sook-hee not as victims, but as agents of history in control of their own destiny, we may be able to appreciate their images but as expressions of their liberated desire. By figuring these characters as objectified victims to the violence of the male gaze, they implicitly align the viewer's desire with that of the perverse Japanese book buyers, an association that the viewer will typically reject. This very act of rejection produces a space of criticality, yet one that simultaneously embodies an ontological contradiction, opening up an opportunity to critique moral judgment between the spectator and his voyeuristic desire.

Relevantly, the author of Fingersmith herself helps clarify how this reading, one that does not merely victimize the image of the two women, might be possible. When asked about the inclusion of the dreaded octopus in the Kouzuki's underground chamber, Waters responds that:
What I like about the octopus is that it links back to the
pornography... It links back to those pornographic images of women
having sex with octopuses. Women and pornography and the relationship
between them--whether they're being exploited for pornography or
whether they're able to reappropriate pornography for their own
end--was very much at the heart of Fingersmith, and I think that
remains at the heart of The Handmaiden. That was probably the most
important thing for me, that feminist essence. So it's amazing; you can
bring in an octopus actually, and it doesn't change. (Sullivan 2016)

In the final scene, Hideko and Sook-hee make love using four small silver bells attached to a string. Earlier in the film, Hideko reads from a piece of erotica called. "The Sound of Bells on a Windless Night," in the library for a group of potential book buyers. They reappropriate the content of Kouzuki's pornography for their own pleasure at the end of the film, taking the written word and reworking it into the visual and auditory means of the cinema. For Waters, this act of reappropriation, an act that overturns the exploitation of women typically associated with pornography, constitutes the "feminist essence" of the film.

Perhaps more compellingly, this act of appropriation corresponds to Park's own artistic practice more broadly speaking. Adapting the story and structure of Fingersniith allows the director to appropriate colonial Korean history for his own ends. Like Fujiwara's paintings, Park's film may be understood as a kind of counterfeit version of the original story, from literature to cinema, one that has been undertaken with some virtuosity in order for it to pass as compelling, featuring credible human characters, and therefore moving to the viewer.

If The Handmaiden inspires a critique of moral judgment, we can perhaps allow it to invoke broader ethical questions about how the politics of spectatorship operates in the cinema. For in following this critique, we might ask of the types of sympathies Park's film encourages and discourages and of the extent to which these sympathies are compelled to undergo critique. Moreover, how do its shifting sympathies invite or disinvite the viewer's complicity with the Korean characters, or with collaborators, while the voyeuristic pleasures of the viewer produce antipathy with the perverse pleasures of the Japanese characters? On the one hand, these are questions that remind us of how popular cinema narrates history as melodrama, as consisting of characters and entities that embody moral values. On the other, such questions enable us to think what legitimates moral judgment in the cinema by putting the logic of the sovereign decision into relief. As a corollary to the Japanese collaborator, the spectator gains the right to judge precisely because his or her position is located both inside and outside the film's diegesis. Indeed, the viewer's complicity with this abjected subject position should be described as one that suspends law: the law of melodrama as enacted in the heterotopic space of the cinema. The capacity to judge is reiterated through the ideological form of the cinema itself, manifest through the gaze of the spectator.


Brooks, Peter. 1995. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Costa, Daniela. "Director Park Chan-wook on 'The Handmaiden" and the 'more romantic' extended version." AfterEllen. September 12, 2016. http://www.afterellen.eom/movies/511551-director-park-chan-wook-handmaiden-romantic-extended-version.

Elsaesser, Thomas. "Contingency, Causality, Complexity: Distributed Agency in the Mind- Game Film." New Review of Film and Television Studies 16, no. I (2017): 1-39.

Kim, Jeong-Chul and Gary A. Fine. "Collaborators and National Memory: The Creation of the Encyclopedia of Pro-Japanese Collaborators in Korea." Memory Studies 6, no. 2 (2013): 130-145.

Robey, Tim. "The Handmaiden Review: liberatingly erotic or male wet dream?" The Telegraph, April 13, 2007.

Romney, Jonathan. 2017. "The Handmaiden." Sight & Sound 27, issue 5 (May 2017): 64-65. Sullivan, Kevin P. "The Handmaiden: How a Victorian-set novel became the Korea-set film." Entertainment Weekly, November 9, 2016.

Williams, Linda. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

(1) I would like to thank Todd Henry for his assistance on the historical references to this essay.

(2) See Steve Choc. Sovereign Violence: Ethics and South Korean Cinema in the New Millennium (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016).

(3) See Chris Berry, "'What Bit; About the Big Film?' "De-Westernizing' the Blockbuster in Korea and China." in Movie Blockbusters, el. Julian Stringer (London: Routledge. 2003): 217-229 and Chapter One of Jinhee Choi. The South Korean Film Renaissance (Wesleyan: Wesleyan University Press. 2010).

(4) For a basic overview, see Jeong-Chul Kim. "On Forgiveness and Reconcilation: Korean 'Collaborators' of Japanese Colonialism," in Routledge Handbook of Memory and Reconcilation in East Asia, ed. Mikyoung Kim (London: Routledge, 2015).

(5) See Mark Caprio, Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009).

(6) See Insook Kwon, "Feminists Navigating the Shoals of Nationalism and Collaboration: The Post-Colonial Debate over How to Remember Kim Hwallan." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies I (2006): 39-66.

(7) See Koen De Ceuster, "The Nation Exorcised: The Historiography of Collaboration in South Korea." Korean Studies 25. no. 2 (2002): 207-242. Kyu Hyun Kim, "Reflections on the Problems of Colonial Modernity and 'Collaboration' in Modern Korean History," Journal of International and Area Studies 1 1. no. 3 (2004): 95-111.

(8) See Lauren Berlant, "The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics." in Cultural Pluralism, Identity Polities, and the Law. ed. Austin Sarat (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997). and Chapter Three from Gi-wook Shin and Daniel Sneider. Divergent Memories: opinion Leaders and the Asia-Pacific War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).

(9) See Carl Schmitt. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

(10) Alexis Dudden characterizes Korea's status after 1907 as "illegal," writing: "According to international law. without Japan, Korea no longer exited in relation to the rest of the world." Alexis Dudden, Japan's Colonization of Korea: Discourse and Power (Honolulu: University of Hawai'l Press, 2005). 8.

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Title Annotation:Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency
Author:Choe, Steve
Publication:Studies in the Humanities
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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