“The snake marks the bounds of knowledge”
As soon as I began walking out of the theater after 아가씨 [Ah-ga-ssi] [The Handmaiden], a friend and fellow critic asked if I was the one laughing. I said, “Yes.” Parts Two and Three (of three) were legitimately funny—I’d say intentionally so. All of Chan-wook Park‘s films are out of necessity considering how dark, twisted, and violent his subject matter proves. I’d argue Korean cinema on the whole has an inherently unavoidable humor if only because the acting always seems to possess a melodramatic lilt whether as a point of cultural style or a result of watching through my American eyes. To admit I laughed isn’t to belittle the achievement of what I saw, though. It’s merely one detail of a densely intricate tapestry consisting of many others.
Park and co-writer Seo-Kyung Chung have adapted a Victorian-era Britain-set novel by Sarah Waters entitled Fingersmith—a word denoting a petty thief skilled with his/her fingers. From what I’ve gleaned through summaries, they’ve actually changed a great deal to take the three-act narrative’s secrets into Oldboy-level despair with meticulous double-crosses upon double-crosses. This is a story overflowing with amoral characters hiding viciousness far below the surface to acquire that which they’ve come to take. These spoils arrive in the form of a massive inheritance owed to Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) now that both her parents have passed. Naïvely imprisoned in the home of Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) whose own wife (So-ri Moon)—and sister of Hideko’s mother—has died, he seeks to marry her for that wealth.
She hasn’t been hidden deep enough for someone like Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), a forger, to hear of her “plight”. A Korean urchin manufacturing a Japanese heritage as the latter occupies the former under colonial rule, he hopes to woo Hideko as a means of escape. Rumors state that the girl is a bit batty thanks to her hermit lifestyle, so the plan is to marry her and then send her to an asylum. Knowing he’ll need help within Kouzuki’s mansion, however, Fujiwara enlists the orphaned daughter of a renowned thief to pose as handmaiden and confidant to his mark. Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) will enter the home to gently push Hideko into the Count’s arms for a price that will buy her own freedom from the streets too.
Park and company put these pieces in play and let them do their thing as romance blooms. Unfortunately the love formed might be between Sook-hee and Hideko. Frustrations arise, passion erupts, and soon we’re uncertain of how everything will resolve. Does real love defeat fake? Does wealthy loneliness trump passionate strength? Will expertly precise plans come undone when success is a breath away? The suspense ratchets up as the moment for climax approaches and yet pretty matter-of-fact in a way that had me scratching my head considering the auteur at the helm. But there are a few secrets left unspoken like a rope on a tree and the impossible repetition of dialogue one character couldn’t have heard another speak. So what appears straightforward may not be after all.
Spoiler alert: The Handmaiden will prove anything but as its two-and-a-half hour runtime allows its second and third act to unfold with as much patience and complexity as the first. We move from Sook-Hee’s perspective to Lady Hideko, rewinding through time to see exactly who she is and what has occurred to form her as yet unseen motivations. The paralleling of timelines once Act Two reaches the starting point of Act One is impeccable, gaps we never even knew were there are effortlessly filled with pertinent information. This story could have ended at the conclusion of Act One with no one being the wiser. It wouldn’t have been as crazy or captivating, but it would have sufficed. Thankfully the more salacious version invisibly biding time rose up instead.
Anyone ruining its revelations does a disservice to viewers because not knowing increases their impact ten-fold. Uncle Kouzuki’s rather limited role expands to introduce a man who fits perfectly into Park’s stable of vile brutes relishing in the torture of others. Many appearances are reversed and numerous ploys are exposed to show a steady stream of allegiance changes as the violence and sex increases. The notion that the film is described as an “erotic psychological thriller” was not lost on me, but the activities seen under the guise of what had proved an insincere plot progression escalate to Blue is the Warmest Color territory. But even if the love between Sook-Hee and Hideko becomes paramount to Fujiwara and Hideko, Kouzuki still looms to destroy them all.
This is where Act Three picks up where the other two simultaneously end, the Gone Girl-esque construction letting caution fly by ensuring lies and truth are meaningless if any slip-ups misjudge presumed success. Purity makes way towards depravity, the mistrust of one forcing us to be skeptical of the other when there’s over thirty minutes left to go. It’s a treat to watch on the level of plot and character because we’re constantly kept in the dark about revelations we cannot even begin to imagine, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say the tonal shift went a bit farther than I would have liked. This goes back to my laughter because the prim and proper gothic decadence must dissolve so treachery and arch villainy can replace it.
While the shift is necessary and delightful in orchestration, my issue perhaps lies in how invested in Act One I got despite the itch that Park’s penchant for pitch-black misery had yet been satisfied. Something about meeting these people under such severe drama renders the lighter touch flirting with but never yielding to caricature too much. It works as it provides immense entertainment, yet I simply couldn’t reconcile the disparate tones enough to believe the second didn’t somehow cheapen the first slightly. What’s interesting, however, is that I wouldn’t have wanted the back half altered to rectify the problem. I would have wanted the front to be less dour. If the broader, comically intuitive atmosphere had permeated the beginning too I wouldn’t have felt the shift so sharply.
Even so, the entertainment value alone cancels out any potential eye-rolls I stopped myself from performing. It’s not often you can legitimately say a film’s direction goes out to left field while retaining its legitimacy as an authentic extension of what came before. Min-hee Kim is the main reason for this because we believe in the face she shows at the start—the one shown to Sook-Hee. She’s in effect playing dual roles: façade and reality. The rest are too, but plot progression plays a larger role for them. Min-hee accomplishes it more impressively from a position of performance, her shift unforgettable. Much of The Handmaiden is exactly that—including Chung-hoon Chung‘s incomparable cinematography searing images into our brains. With Park at the reins, I’d expect nothing less.
 KIM Tae-ri in THE HANDMAIDEN, an Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.
 HA Jung-woo and KIM Min-hee in THE HANDMAIDEN, an Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.
 KIM Min-hee in THE HANDMAIDEN, an Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures.