The Handmaiden

Note: this is really spoileriffic.

I wanted to, I really wanted to, but I didn’t much like THE HANDMAIDEN.

It was, I’ll grant, visually enchanting. Every frame is beautifully composed—in the opening minutes alone, the mere placement of household objects and the light falling on a car in a forest gave me as much pleasure at looking in a screen as I’ve had in some time.

But the film was filled with baffling storytelling choices that, as time wore on, went for me from mildly irksome to confusing to downright unpleasant.

I admit that my view is coloured by my strong sense of the film’s departures from Sarah Water’s novel FINGERSMITH, on which it is based. I find it hard to know exactly how I would have reacted coming to the story cold. But I don’t see fidelity to source material as an end or virtue in itself. For instance, the transplantation of context to Korea and the introduction of the element of cultural colonisation of Korea by Japan, to me, enriched rather than detracted. So my feelings aren’t (only or mainly) the fangirls’ cry of “They got it wrong!” It’s more that a knowledge of their deliberate redirections makes the substantive failings of the film—and the politics of its choices—clearer.

Anyway, my complaints, in vaguely chronological order (since that is also the sequence in which my irritation mounted):

Initially, I was lightly troubled by how heavily they play on Hideko’s beauty in constructing the romance between the leads, beginning with Sookee being (somewhat unconvincingly and soap operatically) dumbstruck at the sight of her. In general, I’m not a fan of any romances that begin with being blown away with one party’s looks; and this certainly compared unfavourably to the growing fascination across distance that is slowly built up in the novel.

It didn’t help that Hideko is a much more unsympathetic character than her novel equivalent. Sue and Maud are no saints, of course: FINGERSMITH’s power comes from its dramatisation of two individuals finding love and recognition in a kind of radical equality of sins—they both entered exactly the same callous plot to do each other in, at the behest of the same greed which seems like the only freedom they could ever enjoy. Mutual honesty and forgiveness come from realising they made their choices from the same trap—a prisoner’s dilemma—and that they are stronger together than pit against each other.

But relations between Hideko and Sookee are much more unequal. In the film, it is Hideko—rather than Rivers and Sucksby—who invents the madhouse scheme. Hideko is the prime mover, Sookee only the pawn. And Hideko’s cruelties to her servants and to Sookee (including striking both) are much more intense and gratuitous than Maud’s. By doing away with the plots to do with maternal love and mistaken identity, the idea of equality between the two and their common identity is also undermined.

But this could have perhaps been forgiven, as weakness rather than failure, had the film not gone on to pander to precisely the kind of degrading fetishisation of their sexuality which is supposedly being criticised in Hideko’s uncle and is coterie. It’s a delicate balance which is walked in FINGERSMITH: sexual frankness is both a tool for damaging and exploiting Maud and a source of her liberatory connection to Sue. But THE HANDMAIDEN seems to me to tip toward reproducing rather than challenging dehumanising views of the protagonists’ sexuality.

Beside the ways their connection (as described above) is undermined, there’s the dreadful move of having the Rivers analogue (the fake Count—I don’t think we ever learn his real name?) “fall in love”, whatever that means and for whatever it’s worth, with Hideko. This takes place for no discernible reason other than presumably once again her enchanting appearance, since there is no warmth between them whatsoever. This undermines the supposed contrast between the mercenary and exploitative relations exemplified in how the Count/uncle treat Hideko and Sookee, and how the two women treat one another. Why is the Count’s “love” different from Sookee’s or Hideko’s?

Worse, Hideko begins to sexually perform for the Count—and also the viewer, who seems increasingly to be made to take the role of the film’s voyeurs. I don’t count in this the part where she kisses him to drug him, but I can’t find any other way to describe the fact that she masturbates in front of him on their wedding night—if the point was only to fool Sookee, making false noises would have sufficed.

The part which to me most encapsulates the increasingly voyeuristic tone of the film is the closing scene, where Sookee and Hideko re-enact one of the scenes which Hideko had had to describe to her uncle’s audience. Confusingly, they do this with very stagey symmetry, on what I remember (perhaps wrongly) on rather uncomfortable looking furniture, taking positions and roles that are remarkably reminiscent of women laughing alone with salad.

A final, relatively minor, gripe: FINGERSMITH is not subtle. Nobody would accuse the film-makers of lack of drama for simply transcribing its matters to screen. So why they had to dial everything to do with Maud’s uncle up to eleven really escapes me. Is it not enough that he’s a nasty pervert who makes a young girl read erotica to men for fun and profit? Does he also have to be a wife-killer—with an underground torture room—complete with rape-octopus—who wants to marry and fuck his ward—and who can mobilise all the country’s border guards to search for them? Calm down a bit, guys.

So, yeah. I wanted to like THE HANDMAIDEN. But I didn’t.

Children, Wake Up

This will surely destroy any vestigial appearance of literary seriousness I may have, recommending Star Wars slashfic, but I am absolutely loving the incredible work on characterisation in Children, Wake Up, a series that begins with three chapters of Kylo Ren/General Hux pornography (uh… yeah), continues with five chapters of romance, and is currently taking off with 28 chapters of political (?) drama. I found the huge clumsy “HEY THIS IS STAR WARS” elbow digs in Episode VII trying, but the reversal of the parent-child dynamics was an emotional masterstroke. The fact that Kylo Ren is mildly comical only made it all the more poignant. This fanfic series is doing a fantastic job of exploring the potential in that.

Otherwise, for the first time in a very long while, I haven’t really been reading, so there is little to report from the world of text. This is mostly because I’ve taken up watercolour painting and am mildly obsessed with trying to get the lighting right on some succulents right now. I’m sure literature will return eventually, but not yet, not yet.

The return of something or another

Been awhile, eh? My word world has been quiet. Against all better judgment (and every single source you could consult), I have been watching the film adaptation of Possession, which is terrible in every way imaginable and then a few more. As it seizes every opportunity to alienate the Byatt reader and must surely be incomprehensibly dull to everyone else, I can’t quite grok who the target audience is meant to be. Perhaps the same baffling market segment who enjoy Gwyneth Paltrow. Yet I find myself still watching. (Yes, I’m the sort of person who keeps pressing a bruise.)

More edifyingly, I am reading Piketty. The first 150 pages or so are, strictly speaking, purely accounting; but who knew accounting could ring with such clarity and insight? How do we manage to gabble and bicker so much about resources without simply taking stock of where they are and who they belong to? I feel a little like someone is showing me that I have lived on our earth without ever having a simple description of the shape and size of its continents and oceans. It makes me feel a little stupid. In the best way.

The Arrows of Time is a bit of a departure from its predecessors. Both the science and the gender politics are comparatively less prominent; instead, we get more of a straight-up space travel thriller, with some familiar Egan ruminations on the nature of free will. (The setup is very much reminiscent of The Hundred-Light-Year Diary, one of the short stories in the collection Axiomatic.) I was sufficiently engaged to want to keep reading, and to feel satisfied that the whole trilogy has seen a resolution (a planet saved from destruction, hurrah!), but it wasn’t nearly as special as the rest of Orthogonal.

Things have otherwise been quiet on the reading front, as I’ve been hugely busy with Day Job. I’m pleased to say that revisions for the novel are underway, though, and after some to-ing and fro-ing we’ve nearly settled on a title, which I hope to be able to share with you soon.

In the meantime: you probably meant to do so anyway, but you really should go see Catching Fire, which is a significant improvement over the first film in the series. It’s shed the pointlessly sick-making cinematography, and the trilogy’s underlying themes about the effects of violence and hierarchical control on the authenticity of human relationships are presented a lot more clearly. The film’s emotional moments are powerful but also refreshingly economical for a Hollywood action movie. I’m now greatly looking forward to Mockingjay, though given that I wept while reading practically all of the source material, I think I’m in for some teary evenings.