'The Handmaiden's' Explicit Lesbian Sex Is Shaking Up Korean Cinema

Talking to 'Old Boy' director Park Chan-wook about "making noise" with his provocative film.

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When The Handmaiden was released in Korea this past summer (under the title Ah-ga-ssi), an American friend who had seen it there told me about the deafening shock and discomfort it elicited among its conservative audience. She had seen it in the coastal town of Yeosu—an approximately four-hour drive from the more progressive and urban Seoul—where even slight public displays of affection may warrant a public slap on the wrist. But a lesbian erotic thriller? Oh boy.

The Handmaiden, the latest from Old Boy director Park Chan-wook,is a lush period piece about a young Korean thief, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), who conspires with a con man named Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) by getting hired as a maid to the rich and beautiful Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress whose inheritance has Fujiwara salivating. Sook-hee has one mission: convince Lady Hideko to leave her cruel and abusive uncle and marry Fujiwara instead. What was supposed to be a straightforward task goes awry when Sook-hee falls for the delicate and drop-dead gorgeous Hideko and derails the con out of self-interest. Things get twisted and heated, and the two soon fall into throes of passion one night. What starts out as a lesson in kissing between two gal pals goes all the way, and the movie takes us on a twisted journey of fraud and fucking.

The explicit lesbian sex scenes in The Handmaiden rival those of Blue Is the Warmest Color (translation: they’d probably give my dear Korean grandparents a heart attack), but if it did scandalize, it didn’t hurt box office sales in Korea. The Handmaiden topped opening weekend with $15.6 million, and its sensationalism probably had a lot to do with it. Park Chan-wook is a celebrated filmmaker in Korea, one who’s both beloved in his motherland and in international markets, and many go into his films knowing he’ll push buttons. But The Handmaiden feels risqué in a way his past ultraviolent films didn’t.

In mainstream Korean culture, sex is still very taboo (in Korean dramas, it often goes completely unacknowledged), and until very recently, homosexuality has largely been treated as nonexistent—or as a depravity no one talks about. Even with looser laws regarding LGBT rights, many queer Koreans keep their sexuality under wraps due to a culture of traditions that strictly look down on, or deny, homosexuality. Korea’s first gay married couple only eloped in 2013, and even still they’re not recognized as legally bound.

“To some, [homosexuality] is still taboo," Park told me in hotel room at Omni Berkshire Place. Considering LGBT rights have only come into Korea's public consciousness very recently, how homegrown audiences would react to the movie was a fair concern​. However, the result has been less violent and more conversation-starting. "There weren't people taking to the streets or boycotting the film," Park says, referring to reactions that some of his other movies have caused.

The Handmaiden bath gif

Even if one film won’t change opinions, there’s a power to talking about it, and even attempting to normalize it. “When they take a survey in Korea for legalizing same-sex marriage, a majority of Koreans would vote no, but because it’s constantly being talked about, people are becoming more and more aware of the issue,” he said. “Even if Korea as a whole won’t agree to same-sex marriage, there is a point to keep on talking about it, and it is at a stage where it is enough so that when a film like this comes out, people finding it to be a shocking news. That’s why I believe continuing to talk about the issue and making noise is important.”

Park is no stranger to “making noise.” Later on in the film, he revisits the very same sex scene between Sook-hee and Hideko. This time, he gets even more detailed, even more explicit: Sook-hee looks directly into Hideko’s vagina as if it were a confession cam. It’s as if Park is making us face our discomforts. You squirmed during the first sex scene? Here it is again—longer, and more graphic. But when the tension during the salacious scene gets to be too much, Park cuts it with humor. As Sook-hee looks into Hideko’s lady parts, she remarks on how cute it is, as if she’s talking about a baby animal. Uncomfortable silence becomes uncomfortable laughter.

Despite being an auteur of visceral reception, Park has a deep understanding of the responses his films evoke. There’s only one reaction to The Handmaiden that’s surprised him: He expected American moviegoers to be more desensitized to sex scenes of this nature. “I’ve heard people say that in American movies you don’t find this kind of depiction of sex,” he said, with a slight hint of surprise in his voice, ”and it was quite shocking for them.” In my theater in Manhattan, there was definitely a deafening silence too, a sense of the audience holding their breath—a mix of shock and awe. Apparently taboos need to be broken here as well.

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