Movies that depend on plot twists have a number of complications forced on them, in order to be good and not just “twisty”. The first problem is that the twists have to be big enough that they change the audience’s perception of what has gone before, but not so wild that they discount everything that has happened. You want to twist the audience’s head from one side to the other, but not clean off. And since most twists occur in order to bring characters into a new light, it’s important that the audience has a firm grasp on character before it is upended.
Where Chan-Wook Park’s twisty and deeply twisted The Handmaiden succeeds is in drawing the audience in with a story that so regularly stands on its head that its practically doing somersaults. It’s one of a kind, sporting the look of a period drama, sometimes veering into a fairytale style languidness, the plot twists and language of a dimestore novel, and the frank and graphic sexuality of a Chan-wook Park movie. Nearly nothing in this film exists on only one level – it is a subterfuge disguising a fraud hidden beneath a plot.
Set in occupied Korea, the Handmaiden of the title is Sook-hee, a young lady being dragged away from her city living to become the companion of a young mistress, Lady Hideko, who is of dubious mental ability. The first night on the job Sook-hee is awoken by the Lady screaming for her mother, who is long dead. Sook-hee keeps her comfort at night, and exists to be a constant companion to her mistress.
Lady Hideko is an heiress, and the niece of a man who has become rich as an interpreter for the occupying Japanese army. He’s parlayed his position into a marriage to Hideko’s Aunt, and after her death has designs to marry Hideko to get his hands on her inherited fortune. The Uncle is obsessed with books, has an enormous collection of rare tomes and stages readings, with Hideko as the reader, for other collectors.
Here is where the levels of subterfuge and fraud begin, because the Uncle (who is not really rich but banking on his niece’s fortune) sells his books, except he can’t bear to part with them so he employs a forger, Count Fujiwara, to make copies that he passes off as the real thing.
Except the forger, though a real forger, is not a real count, but a grifter who has contracted through Sook-hee’s employer (who runs a shop of young girl thieves, including an apparent for-profit adoption agency that sells Korean babies to barren Japanese women) to install her as the handmaiden and help the Count to elope with Lady Hideko, whom he will have committed once he can liquidate her estate.
It’s a cruel and audacious plan, and one the hard-bitten street urchin Sook-hee isn’t particularly troubled with, until she comes to know Lady Hideko, and fall in love with her – something that comes as a complete surprise to both of them.
Park makes the most out of these twists and turns, finding surprising times and scenarios for an almost incidental courtship between the women, and for eroticism. During a bath Lady Hideko complains of a sharp tooth, so Sook-hee shaves it down with apparently a thimble (I didn’t know this was part of a handmaiden’s duties, but there it is). The parallel between Sook-hee rhythmically moving her thumb inside her mistresses’ mouth and other related thrusting activities isn’t subtle.
Neither are the major twists that come after this and other scenes that lead to Hideko eloping with the Count, and the subsequent reversals. The movie is told in three parts, the first two relating the same events from two different perspectives: first, Sook-hee’s, then Lady Hideko’s. The second telling shows elements of what went on in Lady Hideko’s life when Sook-hee wasn’t around, her secret conferences with the Count and the reading sessions that leave her so drained. Revealing the substance of any of this would seriously dilute the point and enjoyment of the movie. It’s a beautifully mounted film in nearly all respects (though the uncle’s old age make-up never looks at all real to me, and whether that’s just another subtly layer of subterfuge or a visual effects oversight, I can’t be sure) and is worthy encountering without too much foreknowledge.
The Handmaiden tells a multi-layered story about deception, with the lies touching mostly on the aspirations of the ill-born trying to climb the social ladder, at once mocking and emulating their betters. But these betters, represented by the men in coat and tails who come to the readings, are revealed to be completely slaves to perversion, wasting their riches on idleness and evil.
But for all the meat there is in this story, ultimately it didn’t satisfy me as a film. Fine scene after fine scene added up to me to be less than the sum of their parts. I believe it was the twisty nature of the film that ultimately proved unsatisfying to me – I began to anticipate revelations about characters and story points that were now not to be subverted, but rather to be taken for their face value. That’s inevitable for a story like this, and in other of Park’s twisty movies (particularly Oldboy) I was satisfied in the end with the “real” elements on the story.
At the end of The Handmaiden, I was more invested in the mechanics of the storytelling than the story. I found it completely compelling, even spell-binding. And perhaps it’s my fault that rather than getting into the emotions, I was looking for the final thread to pull to show the real tapestry, when I was looking at it already.
The Handmaiden DVD comes with no extras. The movie is also available digitally.