The Japanese annexation of Korea (1910–45) implicates a crisis of representation in South Korean national history. Both the traumatic wounds and complex intimacies of Japan's rule over its Korean subjects were met with postcolonial suppression, censorship, and disavowal. This article examines Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi, South Korea, 2016), a period film set in 1930s Korea under Japanese rule, in relation to the two nations’ fraught but interconnected colonial and postcolonial histories. By analyzing the film's explicit sexual depiction through discourses of ethnicity, gender, and nation, it argues that the lesbian sex scenes encode and eroticize latent anxieties and tensions surrounding Japan-Korea relations, making explicit the ambivalent longing and lingering identification shared between the colonizers and the colonized. Furthermore, through intertextual reference to the intertwined and imitative relations between the national cinemas of Japan and Korea—relations mediated and elided by a long history of state censorship—Park's film repudiates an essentialist South Korean identity propped up by both nationalist narratives and market liberalization policies. Through palimpsestic projection of the colonial era onto South Korea's neoliberal present, the film invites parallels between colonialism's unresolved legacy and contemporary modes of cultural production. Simultaneously, the film offers a utopian vision of a national self that surfaces—rather than suppresses—the violence and pleasure incurred in confrontations with the colonial or transnational other.

You do not currently have access to this content.