The Handmaiden is a sexy, sumptuous thriller about a con artist who has no idea he is being conned himself. He devises a plan to make him rich, but the world he plans to enter has outsmarted him, and the two women who were supposed to be part of his evil little game might in fact be playing for the other team. This is a movie that works not because of this double, even triple deception, but because of the way it is structured. It lures us into its web of deceit and duplicity, triggers our sexual antennae and then makes off with the loot. The con artist gets conned, and so do we.
The film is directed by Park Chan-Wook, whose body of work ranges from dark revenge dramas to romantic comedies. The Handmaiden, though not a straight-up romance, sits somewhere in between. It is not clearly a revenge film either, even though its ending seems to suggest a moral and sexual victory. It plays more like an examination of human nature and the way in which forced cohabitation can often lead to unexpected revelations.
Kim Tae-Ri plays Sookee, a professional pickpocket from a family of well-trained con artists, beleaguered under Japanese oppression in 1930s Korea. She is hired to play a handmaiden by “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-Woo), who wants to infiltrate the Kouzuki household, wed his mentally troubled niece Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee), confine her to an asylum while Sookee assumes her identity and make off with her inheritance. For a professional trickster, this should be a walk in the park. But Fujiwara doesn’t count on natural feeling, sympathy, and the universal assumption that two people shoved into the same room for weeks will ultimately develop a physical relationship.
Now, Lady Hideko’s story is convoluted and filled with grisly secrets. Her Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-Woong), a Korean Japanese sympathiser, maintains a vast collection of erotic novels, which he keeps in his cavernous library and auctions off to drooling, lecherous gentlemen during “reading sessions”. The women in his life are raised on picture books of the human anatomy and detailed illustrations of genitalia with the sole purpose of maturing into sexually confident orators capable of humanising and dramatising his literature. The more fully the men can imagine what they hear, the more money they will pay for porn.
Kouzuki’s world establishes the movie’s mood, which carries the personality of a forbidden sexual encounter. It is often dark in this world, with secrets lurking in the corners and unseen rooms of a mansion too big by half. In a labyrinth filled with staff, it’s hard to get time by yourself, let alone discuss fiendish ploys without catching the ear of a passer-by. Fujiwara and Sookee understand their plan. There’s money in it for the both of them. But Sookee grows fond of her ward and is soon doubting Fujiwara at every turn.
Then the plot slips into flashback — sometimes into flashbacks within a flashback — as truths come to light, events play out in full, and the entire movie thickens into a delicious soup of betrayal, sex, and love. Not all is as we think it is, and Park has some wicked fun leading us astray in scenes designed to specifically confuse our allegiances.
The greatest of Park’s movies is of course Oldboy (2003), about a father imprisoned on his daughter’s birthday night and released mysteriously 15 years later. His films often deal with psychotic entrapments and gruesome revenge. In The Handmaiden, Sookee is trapped by Fujiwara. Hideko is trapped by Kouzuki and later also by Fujiwara. Fujiwara is trapped by greed and the necessity to survive in a time of great social turmoil. And we in turn are trapped by Park’s deft orchestration. The only character not restrained is Kouzuki, who also interestingly does not receive comeuppance. He is the mastermind of the plot. The evil that lurks beneath the action. Somehow he remains untouched by the fingers of justice as the course of moral and civil vengeance plays out for everyone else.
This is a tale of sensual, forbidden romance. A powerful female triumph. A strange and sometimes disturbing domestic thriller. And one of the most bizarrely satisfying films of the year.