The Handmaiden takes us on a twisting road of deceptions, double- (even triple-) crosses in a crime drama that straddles worlds. Inspired by a novel set in Victorian England, the story has been transferred to the colonial period in Korea, a time that is tied to the traditions of the past and the emergence of modernity. The house in which most of the story takes place is a blend of both Japanese and English styles. The characters come from the aristocratic world and the world of the streets. The film uses both Japanese and Korean (with different colored subtitles so we know which language is being spoken).
Sookie (Kim Tae-ri) is a young woman chosen to be the new handmaiden for Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a beautiful young heiress who has lived most of her life in Korea as the ward of her uncle, Master Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). When Sookie arrives she is in awe of the opulence of the home. But things are not as they seem. There are limits to where Sookie is allowed to go. The basement is especially off limits. There is a kind of dark feeling to this house despite the richness of the surroundings.
The twists begin when we learn that Sookie is not really a servant, but a thief who has been recruited by The Count (Ha Jung-woo), a slick conman posing as nobility, to befriend Lady Kideko and help The Count woo her. The plan is for The Count and Lady Kideko to elope, claim Lady Kideko’s wealth in Japan, then have her committed and steal her money. But as the story unfolds there are far more twists, with secrets coming to light all along the way—including a love story. The less said about the surprises, the better. After all, that’s what makes this kind of movie so enjoyable—the way we keep feeling off-balance until the end.
As with most crime films, The Handmaiden touches lightly on some of the darker side of life: crime, physical and emotional abuse, soft porn and the lasciviousness that feeds on it. But it does so in a way that avoids explicit portrayals. This is a story that spends a lot of time on the sinful nature of people, yet there is a small bit of the virtuousness of love that offers redemption from the depravity. That too is a way the film tries to balance very different worlds that clash in the story—by providing the chance for love to defeat all the plots of those who seek to do harm.
Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios/Magnolia Pictures