It’s best not to get too comfortable watching The Handmaiden, the latest film from Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Stoker). It’s a movie that lets viewers think they know what they’re watching before, expertly, pulling the rug out from under them. The first few minutes include the first of many deceptions. In a rain-drenched 1930s Korea suffering under the Japanese occupation, the beautiful Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) bids a tearful farewell to what appears to be her family as she leaves to serve as the handmaiden in the home of a wealthy Japanese man. But something about the nonchalant way Sook-hee chows down on her packed lunch in the back of the car taking her to her new home suggests the situation isn’t quite what it appears to be. And it’s not. In fact, little in the film is not what it appears to be. Anyone who takes anything for granted — within the film or watching it — risks getting lost.
For starters, the Japanese man, Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), isn’t Japanese at all, but a Korean who married into a Japanese family and developed pretensions. He lives in a sprawling manor decorated in a hybrid of Japanese and English styles and distinguished by a cavernous library that houses his collection of rare and, from all indications, mostly erotic books. It’s there that he forces the fragile Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the niece of his late wife, to read explicit stories aloud before a crowd of appreciative pervs. Though he’s lived with her since she was a child and is the closest she has to a family, Kouzuki still plans to marry her. But plans have a way of getting thwarted in this film.
Mostly they’re sidetracked by other plans, specifically that of Sook-hee and her partner-in-crime, a self-styled Count named Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha). Like Sook-hee, he’s a con artist, and one happy to work a plan for as long as it takes to pay off, especially if it means pushing Kouzuki out of the way, marrying Hideko, and confining Hideko to a madhouse. The payoff of a lifetime, after all, takes some work.