The Handmaiden, loosely based off of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, is set in 1930s Korea during the Japanese colonization.
The Handmaiden opens with Sook-Hee (Tae Ri Kim) and the Count (Ha Jung‑woo), two Koreans who are out to rob Hideko (Kim Min‑hee), a rich Japanese heiress. Their plan? Sook-Hee will work as Hideko’s maid and convince her to marry the Count who will be posing as a Japanese nobleman. Once Hideko and the Count marry, Sook-Hee and the Count will then dump Hideko off at the nearest asylum and run off with Hideko’s fortune. What could possibly go wrong, right?
The Bechdel, Russo, and Race Test
The Handmaiden is misogynistic mess which eroticizes and fetishizes abuse, torture and lesbians. The film, nonetheless, passes the Bechdel, Russo and race test (go figure).
A good chunk of The Handmaiden’s cast is female (though most of these women don’t have names), and while most of the women in the film don’t talk to each other, there are two women in particular who constantly talk and interact with one another. The women in question? Hideko and Sook-Hee.
Hideko and Sook-Hee are the protagonists of The Handmaiden, and as such, they often talk to each other. Out of the times that these two talk to each other, they almost always mention men as most of their universe revolves men and their machinations, but there is an instance or two where these two converse with one another without mentioning men (e.g., at the beginning of the film, Hideko talks to Sook-Hee about her, Hideko’s, aunt) so The Handmaiden passes the Bechdel test. However, while the film passes this one diversity test and the women in The Handmaiden ultimately “win” by outsmarting and escaping abusive and manipulative men, The Handmaiden isn’t necessarily feminist. Case in point, the abuse that Hideko faces (Hideko, for example, is sexually, emotionally and physically abused by her uncle and his clients) is highly eroticized (versus condemned) and Hideko and Sook-Hee and their relationship is portrayed through the lens of the male gaze (i.e., The Handmaiden depicts Hideko and Sook-Hee’s relationship, especially when it comes to their sexual relationship, in such a way that it panders to the male fantasy of “girl on girl action”).
As to whether or not The Handmaiden actually passes the Russo test, because there are two LGBTI characters in the film, Hideko and Sook-Hee; neither of these women are solely defined by their sexual orientation (e.g., besides being defined as a lesbian, Hideko is also defined as being an heiress and Sook-Hee is defined as being a conwoman); and Hideko and Sook-Hee’s removal from The Handmaiden would significantly affect the film’s plot (The Handmaiden, after all, centers around these two characters), The Handmaiden passes the Russo test.
The Handmaiden also passes the race test, and the film passes this diversity test for obvious reasons – the entire cast is Asian and none of the characters ever mention White individuals so there are thus innumerable instances where non-White individuals talk to each other without mentioning anyone White.
*The Bechdel test entails three requirements:
1. It has to have at least two (named) women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
*The Vito Russo test entails three requirements:
1. The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and/or transgender
2. The character must not be solely or predominately defined by her sexual orientation, gender identity and/or as being intersex
3.The character must be tied into the plot in such a way that her removal would have a significant effect
***The race or people of color (POC) test has three requirements:
1. It has two people of color in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something other than a White person
****Just because a film passes the Bechdel, Russo and race test does not mean that it is not sexist, heterosexist, racist and/or cissexist, etc. The Bechdel, Russo and race test is only a bare minimum qualifier for the representation of LGBTI individuals, women and people of color in film. The failure to pass these tests also does not identify whether the central character was a woman, a person of color or a LGBTQI individual and it does not dictate the quality of the film.