This review is part of a series of the best of the decade. You can read the other entries in the list by clicking this link. This review contains full spoilers for Antiporno as well as The Handmaiden and I recommend watching both before reading this.
I seem to be doing a lot of double handers for this list, and I’m sorry to say that this is no exception. Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden and Sion Sono’s Antiporno, both released in 2016, deal with similar themes of sexuality and, as implied by the title of Sono’s film, the damaging effects of pornography. That’s right, we’re going to be talking about sex and porn and all that good stuff, so I hope the more prudish of you avert your eyes in time.
Antiporno and The Handmaiden are certainly both relatively sexy films, but their stance on the topic might itself be considered more progressive than exploitative. The films have matching views on pornography and its relation to the subjugation of women in society and differ more on the way they present said pornography on screen. This leads to two films which, taken together, create a nuanced argument on the solution to a problem they both believe strongly in.
Firstly, though, it’s worth exploring what their views on pornography are. In both films, the emphasis is on the performative aspect of pornography and indeed, the artifice of it. In The Handmaiden, Chan-Wook exploits the nature of his story as a period piece to highlight the theatricality of pornography. The key scenes here involve the ‘readings’ that Lady Hideko and her aunt are forced to perform for the amusement of Hideko’s uncle Kouzuki. The women sit on a stage and read from a series of pornographic Japanese works of literature. Chan-Wook shows numerous scenes of these readings but never lingers too long on the woman, constantly cutting back to show the men present in the audience watching the performance, reminding the viewers of the film that the storytelling of Hideko and her aunt is not only fiction, but fiction performed for an audience. In the film’s second half, a wooden dummy is introduced into the stories, acting as a stand-in for a man. Once again, the puppet emphasises the unreality of pornography, but also the focus on the female, as a real dude there might only get in the way of the male gaze.
In Antiporno, the illusion is shattered for the audience around a third of the way into the film. While the opening plays out like a strange distortion of a porn film (particularly a roman porno, a series to which this film belongs), the fourth wall breaks at a certain point to show that the story has in fact itself been the filming of a porno – what before was on the cusp of turning into an orgy between the women present in the protagonist’s apartment is quickly shown to be nothing more than a set-up devised by a pointedly all-male crew.
The two central women; Kyoko and Noriko, swap personalities as soon as the director shouts ‘cut’, highlighting that they have only been playing the roles assigned to them by men. From this point onwards, the film continues to break and re-forge the fourth wall, to the point where none of the film’s scenes can be taken as literal, and all become performance. As one of the qualities of the roman porno is that a sex scene must be included every ten minutes, Sono throws into question the reality of all of the film’s sex scenes, positioning all of them as simply performance for some offscreen camera.
This idea of pornography as female performance fuels the worldview of each respective film. Like Kyoko and Noriko, the women of The Handmaiden are constantly playing parts, and they play these parts at the behest of, or in order to navigate the machinations of men. Sook-Hee, for example, is manipulated by the fake Count Fujiwara into performing the role of the doting Handmaiden for Lady Kyoko, but even this is simply another layer of trickery by Fujiwara, who is making Kyoko to play the role of the simple, naïve woman to trick Sook-Hee into falling in love with her. This is also not to mention the role of storyteller that Kouzuki forces Kyoko to play during her readings. It’s true that Fujiwara also has to play a role, something that feeds into the film’s further message of anti-colonialism, but his is much less demanding – Fujiwara playing the count and playing himself are similar people in the eyes of the viewer.
Chan-Wook draws attention to his theme through his multiple shots of voyeurism that permeate The Handmaiden. The house built for Kouzuki is a labyrinth of hidden passages and ways to spy on people, and it becomes a claustrophobic space in which the women must always be playing a performance for the men. Within the house, Chan-Wook includes numerous shots of people spying through windows and large close-ups of people’s eyes as they observe each other’s movements and performances. Once Sook-Hee and Hideko escape the house, and indeed the men who have been attempting to manipulate them, the claustrophobia ends – represented in the sweeping shots of the Korean landscape as the two women run away from the house. It is only without the men that the constant performance that women have to go through can end, as can the claustrophobia of the male gaze. Antiporno doesn’t offer as satisfying an ending for its central character, but it similarly posits the idea that she’s always performing for men. Whether the film crew is strictly real or not seems irrelevant if they are viewed as a manifestation of Kyoko’s internalized feeling of a constant male gaze, no matter what she does.
Both films also show the way in which patriarchal figures distort women’s ideas and thoughts towards sex. Once again, Antiporno takes a more pessimistic stance on the matter. Kyoko’s parents berate her for thinking sexually, reinforcing a societal aversion to public discussion of female sexuality, but themselves are constantly fucking, often in view of their children. This hypocrisy seems damaging to Kyoko, who begins the film vomiting whenever she sees sex, particularly her own. It also leads her to being raped in the forest and starring in a porno as an act of rebellion against her strict parents, but also in order to prove herself as an adult in their eyes. However, she can’t escape the pressure of her parents, even through sex. In the final shot of the film, they’re in the paint with her, still having sex in full view.
In The Handmaiden, the equivalent figure is Hideko’s uncle Kouzuki, who has the same hypocrisies as Kyoko’s parents. Despite teaching his wife and niece to read pornography for the entertainment of him and other men, he strangles them when they talk together about genitalia, as the idea of women reclaiming control of sexuality, even through words, is threatening to his worldview. He also uses the bells, which later emerge as a symbol of lesbian sexuality, to beat a young Hideko. Her and Sook-Hee using them in the film’s final scene becomes a symbol of the two of them repurposing the tools of male dominance for female pleasure.
Perhaps it’s this worldview that informs the way Chan-Wook shoots the sex scenes within The Handmaiden. He has been criticized for their explicit nature; they’re shot with purposeful sensuality, the camera close-up on the women’s mouths as they kiss, or their hands and breasts during sex. This is perhaps because Chan-Wook seems to see a way out of the trap of male dominance over female sexuality for the characters in his film. Almost as a power fantasy, Hideko and Sook-Hee are able to outsmart both Kouzuki and Fujiwara and reclaim the items and plans of patriarchal control. Their sex is shot differently, and more passionately, than any of the moments of attempted sex between a man and a woman in the film, suggesting that for Chan-Wook, women are indeed able to break free of the system. It’s worth noting, though, that although the story itself is from a queer female writer, the camera is Chan-Wook’s, and it is still a straight male eye that shoots these sex scenes as sensual for both the characters and the audience.
Sono’s camera, on the other hand, deliberately and constantly refutes the sensuality of his pornography. Despite the constrictions of his production studio demanding a sex scene from the film every ten minutes, Sono rarely allows these to be hot for the viewer, instead framing the shots to keep them mainly to the background of shots or breaking any sexual tension with actions that are deliberately non-erotic. It’s an act of cinematic blue-balling. Take, for example, the film’s opening. Although Kyoko starts the film naked, she ends up simply slumped on the toilet, and the sex scenes involving her from them on end with her returning to that toilet to vomit. At her casting couch audition, Kyoko says that ‘My nudity isn’t porn. Please hurry up and make it into porn.’ The male director asserts that it is porn, but Sono seems to disagree. Kyoko is indeed naked for a lot of the film, but unlike whenever Hideko and Sook-Hee are naked, Sono creates situations where her nudity isn’t allowed to become erotic and therefore pornographic.
Antiporno seems to be, as mentioned, against the idea of pornography as a tool for female empowerment. Kyoko gains no greater sense of self as a result of starring in the porn film, but instead only a greater realization of the powerlessness of women in Japanese society, and the constant performance they must put on for men. Sono’s film isn’t anti-sexuality, as anyone who knows his other work would attest to, but merely critical of the way female sexuality is portrayed and controlled by men, including in the very series of roman porno that his film is a part of. Chan-Wook is more optimistic in his views on reclamation of pornography by women, and their ability to escape, or at least find happiness within the patriarchy. As such, when viewed together, the two films create opposing sides of a surprisingly nuanced argument.