“The Handmaiden” is a story of 4 people. Two men and two women. It starts off pretty typical with the Japanese and British cultures focus on patriarchy. Lady Hideko is left with a fortune but has no right to it because she’s a woman. So she lives with her uncle who intends to marry her one day to take the fortune but is beat out by Count Fujiwara who gets to the dowry before he does through a scheming plan that involves an innocent (or not) peasant, Sook-Hee. And yet, a third of the way through the movie, the audience learns that everything is not as it seems and that there is a whole different plan happening the audience doesn’t even know about, one that includes deep love and intelligence.
This film isn’t a typical film from the beginning. It’s well into the story that we learn the story is told out of chronological order through the editing. As Sook-Hee leaves her family to become the new handmaiden to Lady Hideko, she bids adieu from tear-stained faces, one of her relatives proclaiming, “it should have been me!” Well, Sook-Hee must be sacrificing something important if her close family doesn’t even want her to be the tribute.
And yet we shortly learn that this “family member” is actually a thief and work colleague who wanted to go herself to obtain some of Lady Hideko’s fortune. But we don’t find out about this until halfway through the movie. This is because the editing is used to tell the story out of chronological order to make the audience feel as though they know what’s going on and what to expect. This happens throughout the film to show the audience that things aren’t what they seem.
The production design is another element that is the biggest giveaway from the beginning that this is a story that things aren’t what they seem. Sook-Hee, upon arrival to the house of the uncle, is told about the unique architecture where one wing is specifically British while the other is Japanese. Two worlds happily coexisting. And yet, Lady Hideko is miserable in both cultures. Her happiness (or sadness) is dictated by the men around her just as these men (her uncle in particular) dictates the beauty of the house.
But, the story takes an important turn at the end when Count Fujiwara is being tortured by the uncle. The Count makes an important observation in the dreaded basement: “there are no windows.” He knows that without the ventilation, he will kill the uncle while dying by mercury poison suicide. But at least the torture will be done.
Who would have thought that the architecture of this unique structure would ultimately kill the man who built it? The uncle falls into the stereotypical maleness from both worlds. And, because of this and his desire to remain in a position of power within the patriarchal structure, he gives no thought to the efficiency of the house, only the beauty of it. Just like he only sees Lady Hideko as a thing of beauty and a tool to more fortune that actually seeing her as an intelligent, able to show great love individual.
Another element that is crucial to the story is that of the acting. Min-hee Kim (Lady Hideko) and Tae-ri Kim (Sook-Hee) both deliver amazing performances. The performances become amazing when the audience realizes that each character has been playing multiples roles: things very much aren’t what they seem.
Both character portray two characters: one of submissiveness (specifically to the patriarchy) and one of dominance (to themselves and each other). The first third of the movie both women are submissive (at least that’s what the audience believes). But when Lady Hideko turns Soo-Kee in to the madhouse, taking her identity, the audience can’t help but react with laughter as the real plan starts to unwind.
And yet, that was only part of the plan as Sook-Hee was in on it all along. The real plan was to switch the identity of the count, after a marriage ceremony, to then have Lady Hideko take back her own fortune and live out her life with her actual love, Sook-Hee with no more patriarchal control.
Both of these women, strong characters who fight (and scheme) for what they really want, the love of the other, have to play these two parts. Just like the house happily coexisting with two cultures, so, too, do both of them as they come from very different worlds. But they are able to coexist because of their love for each other which is the ultimate twist to the story: the patriarchy might define what is normal but even that can’t keep true love apart. This is important to the characters and is amazingly portrayed by these talented women in the acting.