At first glance, Korea’s 2016 The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) seems to be a straight-forward imperialist drama. Based on the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, and sumptuously directed by Park Chan-wook, The Handmaiden transfers the story from Victorian England to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, where the Japanese imperialists have become the ideal for the subjugated Koreans. Learn Japanese, dress in kimonos, and mimic the behavior of your oppressors, and you can escape the poverty and ostracism of Korean occupation.
The Handmaiden quickly shifts into a crime drama, however, as a group of Korean thieves, pickpockets, and con-men plan to infiltrate the home of a rich but secluded woman in order to steal her fortune. Just when you think you understand what is happening, however, The Handmaiden abruptly shifts its perspective, changing the focus of its storyline to become one of the most complex psychological thrillers ever made.
The story begins simply enough. A handsome Korean con-man who pretends to be a Japanese nobleman, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo),
recruits a young, somewhat naïve pickpocket, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri),
to insinuate herself as a handmaiden in the household of an isolated, reclusive Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-heea).
The heiress is betrothed to a strange, unimaginably wealthy Japanese-book collector, who is also her uncle by marriage, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong, below R), and who also plans to steal the girl’s fortune himself.
Sook-hee’s job as handmaiden is to persuade the heiress Hideko to accept the Count’s marriage proposal and to elope since it is well known that the Uncle intends to marry his virtually captive niece himself. After consummating the illicit marriage, the faux Japanese Count plans to empty his new bride’s bank account and have the heiress-bride Hideko committed to a lunatic asylum. In return for her help, the pickpocket Sook-hee can take whatever clothes and jewels she desires.
Given the wealth and personal obsessions of her Uncle, the heiress is continually isolated, but with her handmaiden as her chaperone, Hideko manages to have a bit more freedom with the Count, who is ostensibly giving her art lessons.
During the Count’s surreptitious courtship, Lady Hideko and Handmaiden Sook-hee find themselves drawn to each other — first as companions and friends, and then, tentatively and somewhat innocently, as lovers.
Just when you think you know how the film is going to develop, it suddenly seems to end, and not very pleasantly. It’s only Sook-hee’s perspective of the story that ends, though, because the film is not even half-way over.
Part Two continues the story, only now from Hideko’s perspective, where we learn that Lady Hideko is haunted by the suicide of her aunt, that her Uncle Kouzuki is a collector of rare Japanese books that are all pornography, and that he forces her to read said pornographic books to him as well as to his male guests, including the Korean-faux-Japanese Count. This isolation and abuse account greatly for Lady Hideko’s ennui and despair in the Part One, as well as for the Count’s interest in Lady Hideko: he wants the heiress’ fortune and the Uncle’s rare Japanese pornography collection.
Lest you now think that you have all of the characters figured out and that you are absolutely positive about the film’s final act, The Handmaiden “ends” again, with about 45 minutes remaining. You are now at Part Three, which shifts its storyline to the perspective of the faux Japanese Count, the Korean con-man whose world is about to be thrown into chaos by none other than Lady Hideko and her Handmaiden Sook-hee.
Because the film is clearly divided into three parts, with viewers being alerted to Parts One, Two, and Three with those words on-screen, this psychological thriller and crime drama is easy to follow despite its “fiendishly dense and complex” narrative. Intellectually challenging and satisfying, with a Hitchcockian seductiveness, The Handmaiden is a dramatic exploration not only of forbidden sexual desire but, more importantly, of the tyranny and potential cruelty of absolute power. Whether in imperialism, in male-dominated marriage, or in rigid socio-economic class distinctions, power can warp itself into persecution, injustice, and brutality, causing its victims to rebel and take their revenge.
Part neo-noir and historical drama, part “love story, revenge thriller, and puzzle film,” The Handmaiden is luscious and fascinating, marred only by its explicit lesbian sex scene in Part Two, which was handled much more artistically and tastefully in the first part of the film when much of the interaction was left to the viewers’ imagination, and which caused at least one critic to label the film as nothing more than a “male wet dream.”