Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Handmaiden’, and how we react differently to physical and emotional violence

Posted on October 3, 2019


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Park Chan-wook likes his violence. In one of the most memorable scenes in Oldboy, a man cuts off his tongue. He’s asking another man for forgiveness. “I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll do anything. I beg you… If you want me to be your dog, I will.” On all fours, he wiggles around like a dog and wags his bottom, like a dog wagging its tail. It doesn’t work, so he licks the other man’s shoe. It still doesn’t produce the desired effect, so he picks up a pair of scissors and sticks out his tongue. The scene makes you wince because the close-up is not on the face or the tongue but on the hand holding the finger holes of the pair of scissors. We know the snap is going to come, but we don’t know when, and that’s the agonising part.

The Handmaiden is a gentler movie, in the sense that only fingers end up being chopped off and dropped into a bucket. Of course, this happens in a room whose shelves are filled with severed genitals (male and female) preserved in formaldehyde-filled jars, and there’s even a live octopus (an apparent hat tip to the one in Oldboy), but I guess one can’t have everything. In  any case, the emotional violence in this director’s cinema is as excruciating as the physical violence. It’s just that spurting blood and dismembered body parts (i.e. the results of physical violence on screen) make us cover our eyes, whereas the results of emotional violence produce reactions that are far less extreme. Think about it. When Ingrid Bergman is being gaslighted in Gaslight, we say, “Oh, poor thing!”, but aren’t we really watching a mind being dismembered, as opposed to a body part. Why, then, this diminished response?

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