“The Handmaiden”

 

            It's the late 1930's.  Japan has occupied Korea (and Manchuria), but is not yet at war with the United States.  It is a time of ascendancy for the Japanese, and oppression for the Koreans.

            That's part of the reason it feels so good for a bunch a Korean swindlers to plan a “long con” on a Japanese nobleman.  It seems that Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) lives on a palatial estate and his prized possession is his library.  His niece, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) is apparently his only heir, and since she is of marriageable age, the “con” is that one of the swindlers presents himself as Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), a suitor for Lady Hideko.  Simultaneously, they arrange for Lady Hideko to have a new handmaiden, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), who's part of the same gang of Korean swindlers.  She's supposed to encourage Lady Hideko to be interested in Count Fujiwara.  Her mother, apparently, was a famous and accomplished pickpocket, until one day she got caught and hanged.  Ironically, Lady Hideko's Aunt killed herself by hanging, and Lady Hideko still has nightmares about her ghost in the maple tree outside her window.

            The trouble with a “long con” is that circumstances, and personalities, can change.  Sook-Hee finds herself becoming fond of Lady Hideko, who seems to be so naive and sheltered, though apparently well-educated.  From Sook-Hee's perspective, “Count” Fujiwara seems to be clumsy with his courtship, or could it be that Sook-Hee doesn't really want Lady Hideko to fall in love with him, after all?

            But nothing is quite as it appears.  We know that Sook-Hee is not exactly the wide-eyed innocent that she pretends to be, but then we learn that Lady Hideko isn't, either.  As for Uncle Kouzuke, he's an out-and-out pervert, and many of those fabulous books he treasures are actually pornographic.  He invites rich friends over to listen to a gorgeous young woman read to them, with passion and feeling.  And yes, the sexuality simmers just below the surface not only for the courting couple, but even for Lady Hideko and her handmaiden, who sometimes share a bed on a dark, stormy, night----but what if cozy comfort becomes suddenly sensual?

            Director Chan-wook Park utilizes the “differing point of view” perspective, filming the same scene from the standpoint of different characters, with obviously divergent motivations.  The symphonic music makes for a lyrical background to a less-than-prosaic plot, as we pirouette between drawing-room dialogue and street slang, from painting instruction to an unexpected torture scene; and all the while we're wondering just who is loyal to whom, and whose betrayal will be the most surprising.  And yes, parts of the film are overtly sexual, but there is a breadth of perspective there, from tenderness to masochism, from cynical pretense to breathtaking discovery.  There may be people you would be uncomfortable viewing it with (like your Sunday School class), and some may object to the ribald language, as well:  but is it once-removed; muted, somehow, by being translated on the screen instead of spoken aloud in English?

            It's a long complicated film with subtitles, but you need to get there on time and pay attention throughout to catch the nuances of the plot twists.  It's definitely not your average popcorn and root beer movie.  More like sushi and chamomile, for acquired tastes.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  When have you met someone who was not who they presented themselves to be?

2)                  When have you been surprised by suddenly finding someone you knew attractive?

3)                  How do you know you're being conned?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association