Can you be in South Korea and not connect rain with Bi/Rain? Rain is how the movie begins. Foreigns soldiers in the rain. Kids following them. Women with babies taking shelter on a wooden porch from the rain. The soldiers are from the Japanese Imperial Army; Korea isn’t divided into North and South. It’s a country enslaved. That’s not what this movie, “The Handmaiden,” is about, and yet, it is.
Based on the Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel “Fingersmith,” director Park Chan-wook has transported the action from Victorian England to Korea sometime after 1910, when the Annexation Treaty was signed. The book’s title refers to someone with light fingers, a petty thief, but is also alludes to female masturbation and lesbian sex. Female breasts are sensuously displayed; masturbation and lesbian sex is simulated. Seduction, betrayal and love is what this movie is about: “What does a crook know about love?”
Writing with Syd Lim, Park has remained faithful to the novel’s structure. The story is told in three parts. Each seems to take the point of view of one character, yet we don’t know everything that person knows. The Korean (Hangul) title 아가씨 means, according to Google Translate, miss, sister or maid. That could refer to the served or the servant. The English title makes it clear. This is about “The Handmaiden.”
Part I is about the lady’s maid. Rain can be romantic. Rain can be cold. Rain makes you think of a physical sensation. The women with children are not mothers. They are not camp followers. They are part of a din of thieves. We later learn that Miss Boksun is the top purveyor of stolen goods. The babies are a side business. One woman, Kutan, has her own baby to feed with no father in sight. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) finds her selfish. If she had milk in her breasts, she would feed these children. The babies are orphans, left in the streets, and the enterprising Boksun is raising them to be sold to Japanese families.
Into this household of young women, babies and ineffectual men comes a con man, familiar enough with the household that he takes the butterfly hairpin from the middle-aged mistress Boksun and uses it to open a locked drawer. The con man (Jung-woo Ha) has been making money as a counterfeiter of paintings and books that the unscrupulous man at the Kouzuki residence sells to his customers. He pretends to be Count Fujiwara from Nagoya.
Students of Japanese history will recognize how pretentious that is. The Fujiwara clan 藤原氏 was once a powerful family. The clan was founded in 66i when the emperor awarded Nakatomi no Kamatari with the name. The Fujiwara was politically powerful during the Heian period (794-1185), using a strategy of marrying their daughters to emperors. In the movie, marriage is how the Count intends to gain power.
The master of the the Kouzuki residence is the uncle (Jin-woong Jo) of Hideko Izumi (Min-hee Kim) who will inherit all, including a gold mine. The con man Count tells a tale of an interpreter for the Japanese imperial forces who wormed his way into high society, becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen and marrying into a fallen noble family and taking its name (This wasn’t uncommon and known as yōshi-engumi or the adoption of a male heir.) The Japanese wife is long dead. While the uncle’s collaboration with the invading Japanese might suffice for some movies to designate him as evil, in “The Handmaiden,” this isn’t the foundation for how distasteful we will find both uncle or even the con man count.
Sook-hee isn’t just a pawn in this venture. She’s set to receive clothing, jewelry and money. The money is something she negotiated on her own.
Dressed in Korean style, with a mask of humility, Sook-hee as Okju enters the large, isolated estate of Kouzuki and is met by the head servant who instructs her on several things. First, she has a new name: Tamako. That might remind you of “Roots,” both the old and the new version. This renaming isn’t uncommon for Koreans in Japan or anyone in China. Here, however, it is seen as a form of erasing identity.
Tamako may eat her mistress’ leftover food, but the tea leaves go to the kitchen and the stewards get leftover soap. Stealing is grounds for dismissal. Tamako doesn’t immediately meet the mistress. She has oddly arrived at night and is told to sleep in a cupboard for futons: She is not a person. She is just part of the furnishings.
The house is creepily both Western and Japanese style. One wing is British and another is Japanese. One takes off one’s shoes to enter the Japanese portion and then puts on shoes again to wear in the English portion. Prior to World War II, the British were one of Japan’s closest allies. When the Japanese won the Japanese-Russo War, the British cheered. The U.S. worried.
After attempting to peek into the darkened room of her mistress, Tamako hurriedly goes into the cupboard and shuts the door. In the dark, she hears a scream and stumbles out of the darkened cupboard and into her mistress’ English-style room.
“O-kāsama,” Hideko screams in her sleep, on a large European-style bed. Hideko claims she has been dreaming of her aunt who hanged herself on the expensive cherry tree that is now in full bloom. Hideko also asks for Junko and Tamako must explain that Junko, the previous maid is gone. Tamako sings a song about sweet bluebirds after giving Hideko a spoonful of sake to calm her. That’s what Miss Boksun did to calm the abandoned babies.
The blooming cherry tree tells us this part of the story is April. In Japan, cherry blossoms are associated with the ephemeral nature of life. The tree seems ghostly in the night gloom. This incident sets up two mysteries. First, why did her aunt hang herself. Second, why did Hideko cry, “O-kāsama.”
In Japanese, there are many ways to refer to one’s mother. O-kā would be the least formal. O-kā-chan would be informal and the chan suggest endearment. The question for Japanese becomes: Why didn’t Hideko call for “O-kā-chan.” The question for Koreans becomes: Why didn’t Hideko call for her mother in Korean?
Tamako is illiterate. She doesn’t make friends with the servants who she considers “country yokels.” One of them steals one of her shoes. Hideko offers her shoes. Hideko has shelves of fine leather shoes and drawers of gloves and other luxurious clothing items. amako feels “Ladies are truly the dolls of their maids,” but she also tells Hideko, who feels guilty because her mother died in child birth, “No child is ever guilty of being born.”
Tamako helps with the fake count seduce Hideko, but Hideko seems a too willing ripe peach (peach blossom in Japan are associated with girls) devoured by the count. And yet, she also seems to eager to be instructed into the ways of men, asking Tamako “Tell me what it is that men want.”
When Hideko says, “I’m afraid of the count…I just feel it,” there is much to fear, but is she really, “practically a child”? Eventually sweet turns to savory. Think carefully about the color change when suddenly in Japan, Hideko wears purple (associated with long-lasting love and royalty) and Tamako wears red (associated with sudden hot love).
Part II is the viewpoint of the young lady Hideko. Here in lies a partial answer answers to why her aunt committed suicide.We won’t get the full answer until Part III when we learn the depths of depravity of both the uncle and the fake count and what lies in the basement. The kind of literature and pictures that the uncle collects is called shunga （春画） in Japanese, literally spring (season) paintings/pictures. One might consider what the uncle was doing as grooming.
The movie also separates the languages by putting the English subtitles for the Korean in white and the Japanese in yellow. Language is important here. A third viewing might give one something to dissect, but might require spoiler alerts.
There’s enough soft eroticism to please both lesbians and heterosexual men although it does bog down the mystery somewhat. This is a seductive story about how two women overcome their hardships and the prison of their stations. This is a masterfully told tale that announces Park Chan-wook as a new master of cinema rising out of Asia.