By Ameesh Shah
A film by Park Chan-Wook
Park Chan Wook is known for directing "Old Boy," Lady Vengeance, and Stoker. Handmaiden is his next crime drama; split into three parts. Shown in different perspectives, Park sends the audience in several turns allowing you to make several guesses. This story is about a young Korean woman named Sookie, played by budding actress Kim Tae-Ri, who is hired on as a handmaiden. To start off, you find she isn't a house maiden at all, but rather a daughter of a master thief. The film doesn't just follow the handmaiden's story but also the story of the young lady of the house, Lady Hideko, played by Kim Min-hee (a Japanese woman living in a mansion in worn torn Korea) who Sookie works underneath. With Lady Hideko's father dead, she is brought under the care of her uncle. Having never known her mother, she has night terrors and needs a constant watch. There is one more player in this deceitful game: the "The Count" played by Ha Jung-woo. An associate of Sookie, he fell for Lady Hideko's money and hired Sookie to help him get the girl and steal her fortune. Sookie, dazzled by money and riches, jumped at the opportunity and with that the story begins with Sookie starting to understand Hideko is merely an innocent being played by the count.
Though as a relationship is trying to be made a new one is budding as Sookie and Hideko in Sookie's persistence to guide Hideki to trust the count she has in verdantly caused Hideko to trust Sookie. And Sookie begins to fall for Hideko. One could ask does Sookie change her mind, throughout this story for her heart's sake or Does The Count" eventually win over Hideko through Sookie's help? Or does Hideko consent fully fall for Sookie, and if the count wins what happens to Hideko and for that matter Sookie. Or is it a twist you don't see coming?
This story has a lot of interesting elements and some unnecessarily explicit sex scenes.
This is why I give this film an NC-17 rating; though no extreme violence is shown, everything in this movie has a way of throwing off the veil of innocence from the viewer. From the start of The Hand Maiden, we begin with Sookie taking care of a baby. We think she is an innocent house maiden who is about to get a start for a new life, leaving behind her old one of day care. What we are thrown into, instead, is that this is a ploy from the start. Sookie is a thief from a small time group of pickpockets. She is easy to swindle unsuspecting victims and yet also easily falls for the sound of money and dresses. When a handsome man respected by her peers chooses her to help him with a heist. Her job to convince the innocent lady to fall for him. And just like that, she is hired to a beautiful house to take care of a prominent woman. Once she isn't to bother and in fact, she is to stay in the japanese side while Hideko is staying on the western side.
In a mansion with the most unusual architecture, the west meets the east in this house, also to say that the West has a way of infecting those of the East. The first night Sookie is introduced to other servants who seem silly, and the head servant who has lost all her sense of humanity. Or innocence. Here Sookie is told what she can and can't do, and that there is an entrance for the servants that she can only take when not with the lady, beyond that she goes only where Lady Hideko goes. Sookie meets Hideko after a scream of fit and rushes to her side.
A ghostly remark and both the ladies go screaming of fright though it was all in their heads. As the days go by we find that Sookie can't read and Hideko has never had it. So together they both begin to teach each other the ways of knowledge. One about books and the other about men. Then as they get closer, the Count shows up. Sookie and the count convene, and the charade truly begins. Sookie starts to have regrets as she sees how he toys with Hideko, not knowing how much that is truly toying with her heart. Hideko and Sookie begin to play the handmaiden and lady game where Sookie and Hideko trade places.
This is where Sookie realizes for sure she like Hideko and then Sookie kisses HIdeko. Sometime during the week the count pushes for Sookie to deceive Hideko into suggesting HIdeko that she is blushing and that its because she is falling for the Count. Hideko in a rage slaps Sookie, and then they go estranged. Eventually, Hideko and Sookie are back to being handmaiden and Lady. They make a break for the slope and the fated day of placing the lady in an asylum are upon Sookie.
Then it happens, a twist you never saw coming; Sookie was dressed as Hideko and vice versa. So now Sookie is thrown into the asylum…. Hold the phone. Wait what. It seems we underestimated HIdeko. Hideko the innocent student with straight A's? It seems the story truly begins now in the second half of the story. This story unfolds as a love story hidden within a crime. But then is Sookie truly falling in love or into madness.
As I said before, this story is a tale of innocence lost in all ways possible for Hideko and Sookie. And maybe even the Count who thinks he isn't in the game at all. I rate this movie as a 9 out of 10 stars but with an NC-17 rating for all the nudity and sex. And there is a lot more to come in the second half.