In the last post Reimagining Erotic Fantasies: The Handmaiden, Part 1 I talked a little about the recent Park Chan-Wook movie, The Handmaiden. If you haven’t seen it, get off your butt (after finising this post) and go see it! It is deceptive, dark, humorous and erotically charged. In today’s post I will delve further into Lady Hideko’s disturbing childhood and examine a few symbols that recur throughout the movie. You will realize that underneath the deception and humor there is actually a lot of interesting history and facts to be learnt about erotic literature that tie in perfectly with the movie.
The Handmaiden is separated into three parts. In the second part of the movie we learn that her uncle, Kouzuki, was a sadistic and cruel figure. Hideko was raised in his gloomy estate and subjected to much abuse as a child. Kouzuki is an avid book collector and never allows too much sunlight into the mansion because sunlight causes books to fade. He also taught her to read with perfect diction in order to read erotic literature to perverted businessmen during his book auctions much like how he forced her aunt to read/perform also. Her and her aunt were practically prisoners of the estate.
METAL BEADS AND BELLS
In the first part of the movie we see glimpses of the tools that Hideko’s uncle uses to inflict punishment whenever she spoke back. Bells make their actual appearance in the second part of the movie where Kouzuki has Hideko bite on a metal bell while he whacks her hand with these solid metal beads as punishment.
As the movie progresses, a grown up Hideko is reading erotic literature in front of men as a form of entertainment and marketing. She is reading an excerpt from the notorious Chinese erotic novel Jing Ping Mei/The Golden Lotus (金瓶梅). The bells mentioned are actual ancient Chinese sex toys called “Mien Ling” (勉鈴) that appear multiple times in Jing Ping Mei. As Hideko recites some of the more memorable parts with her eyes closed, the mansion goes in and out of power and there is a distant ringing of bells. The camera pauses momentarily on a wall calligraphy which writes:
The Sound of Bells on a Windless Night
Fast forward to the end of the movie, Hideko and Sook-Hee have successfully eloped and on the cruise ship they actually play out the scenes involving four silver bells Hideko had recited from Jing Ping Mei. They gently place a set of bells in each others mouths and private parts as a symbol of pleasure and the movie ends with bells ringing in the dark of a quiet windless night.
Dream of Fisherman’s Wife Clutch by Olympia Le-Tan
Silver Balls and Rope from Toho Shoji (Beads and materials store located in NYC)
Another item that keeps reappearing throughout The Handmaiden is rope. Although there is no overt mention of it in the movie, the usage of rope reminds me of Japanese rope bondage which is also known as Kinbaku – a form of beauty found in restriction and binding.
Sook-Hee first comes across rope in Hideko’s room along with the metal balls. These are both symbols of her troubled childhood years and the struggles she went through buried amidst the luxurious fabrics that adorn her body.
Pain is a Garment
First her aunt hanged herself with rope from the sakura tree after many torturous years with Kouzuki. Hideko claims that on some moonless nights, she still sees her aunt dangling from the tree.
“I wish I had never been born”
Kimono Silk Robe with Lace by Agent Provocateur
Later in the movie we see Hideko reenacting an eerie sexual position with a full-size wooden mannequin after narrating a “Sade-esque” story. Interestingly, although Kouzuki says this is not a Marquis de Sade novel, the main character is called Juliette – the title of one of Sade’s banned books. Her uncle tightens the rope around the mannequin’s neck to fully play out the erotic asphyxiation which this book is centered around.
Sade de Marquis
French novelist who was famously know for writing erotic literature that depicted “sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence, criminality, and blasphemy”. Both the words ‘sadism’ and ‘sadist’ were derived from his name.
When I first started preparing for this post the first thing I thought of getting was gloves. Lady Hideko is often seen wearing beautiful silk or leather gloves. Initially I thought this was just the fashion of the time, but after more careful observation I noticed that nobody wears gloves other than Hideko, her uncle and her aunt. Then I realized they must be wearing gloves in order to handle the precious books that Kouzuki has collected over his lifetime.
Ivory Gloves from Light in the Box
Black Lace Glove by Dita Von Teese
Bondage Girls Box Clutch by Olympia Le Tan
Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife Box Clutch by Olympia Le Tan
DREAM OF THE FISHERMAN’S WIFE
The last and probably most memorable symbols of The Handmaiden is this story of a woman and two octopuses making love.
This artwork is commonly known as “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” in the western world – a very famous woodblock print by Hokusai, who is known for “The Wave Off Kanagawa” See my post wearing a dress inspired by The Wave off Kanagawa here. The original name of the artwork, however, says nothing about the woman being a fisherman’s wife. In Japanese, this piece is called “Tako to Ama” (蛸と海女) meaning “the octopus and the shell diver”. It is included in a book of Shunga 春画 (erotic art) called Kinoe no Komatsu (喜能会之故真通). You can read the translation of the captions here.
The first hints of this story come in the second part of the movie when Hideko’s uncle takes her to the basement where we can hear an octopus sloshing in water and he hints at some of the dark, brutal things he may have done to her aunt when she tried to run away.
Then we see the fake Count Fujiwara recreating this artwork.
And ironically, the octopus finally makes its full appearance as fake Count Fujiwara is facing his death after his failed scheme and subsequent capture.
It’s interesting to note that the story that this artwork is suspected to have been derived from the story of Princess Tamatori. Tamatori is a shell diver who marries Fujiwara no Fuhito who was a powerful member of the imperial court of Japan. She dives into the undersea palace of Sea God Ryujin (her uncle’s basement and floors filled with water under the tatami) in search of the pearl that was stolen from the Fujiwara family. She is pursued by many sea creatures including octopuses and dies in the quest. See the parallels?
Clutch by Olympia Le-Tan
The process of gathering related materials, creating my own props (the metal balls) and researching the stories within the movie was so much fun.I sincerely hope you enjoyed The Handmaiden and liked my reenactment as much as I enjoyed reenacting it.
Please let me know if you liked this post and leave a comment if you have anything to add 🙂
| Photography by Austin Donohue |
| Location: Japanese Hill and Pond Garden at Brooklyn Botanical Garden |