During the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) lives on a large countryside estate with her abusive uncle. A new handmaid, Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) arrives in the house to assist her, only the two bond in unexpected ways.
But what Hideko doesn’t know is that Sook-Hee was raised in a den of thieves – and pickpockets, forgers, human traffickers, and so on. A fellow criminal, playing the long con and posing as Japanese gentleman Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), came to her with a proposal. Lady Hideko stands to inherit a vast fortune. If Sook-Hee agrees to help Hideko fall in love with him, they’ll rob her of her money and have her locked up in a madhouse. Sook-Hee accepts. But as she encourages Hideko’s seduction, she herself is falling for the lady, but her poverty and pride won’t let feelings get in the way of fortune.
The Handmaiden is an exceedingly beautifully-shot film with a score that sounds an awful lot like Downton Abbey. It’s loosely based on Sarah Waters’ crime novel, Fingersmith, but director Chan-wook Park (yes, the very same who gave us Oldboy) has his fingerprints all over this adaptation. His interpretation is visually luscious, of course, and the story more complex than it seems. This one too cleverly hints at the various power dynamics at play – between sexes, classes, and even colonized and colonizer.
While the erotic scenes are somewhat familiar and cliched, one bathtub scene involving a thimble will go down in the history books as a delightfully powerful lesbian maneuver. The Handmaiden is lush and decadent and often disturbing.