Midori Chen

The Handmaiden: Transnational Feminist Politics in Korean Cinema
Gender & Women's Studies
Spring 2018

Western social progressivism is a dominant global myth that upholds “the West” as beacons of women’s rights, queer rights, etc., while “the rest” are consigned as “traditional” and “oppressive.” Hollywood and Western media’s saturation of the global market perpetuates this myth, and Western academia institutes it as fact by paying attention only to Hollywood films in labors of analysis. However, economic shifts of the past few decades have seen to the rise of films by non-Western creators about non-Western stories. My research will be on the cultural effects of one of these films— Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016). Having conducted a formal reading of the film, I propose that The Handmaiden champions minority rights by critiquing exploitative gazing practices in cinema and conducting strategies to reinvigorate people objectified by misogyny, homophobia, racism, and colonialism with subjectivity once more. Therefore, Hollywood does not have a monopoly on progressivism, and it is high time Western academia pay non-Western films the same integrity of attention that has historically been paid to Hollywood. Through focus groups and interviews, I will gather qualitative data on Korean audience reception of The Handmaiden, determine its cultural meanings in Korea, and articulate a more faithful account of the film’s social impact to be entered into Western feminist film discourse.