Film / The Handmaiden

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If she could be yours for ten minutes, what would you give in exchange?note 

The Handmaiden is a 2016 film directed by Park Chan Wook. Based on Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, the Victorian-era British story is transferred to Korea in the 1930s, when the country had been occupied by Japan and its people systematically oppressed and their culture forbidden.

Count Fujiwara, a Korean Con Man who poses as a Japanese nobleman, recruits the low-level criminal and pickpocket Sook-hee to help him scam the wealthy but isolated Lady Hideko out of her vast fortune: Fujiwara will woo Hideko and convince her to marry him, assisted by Sook-hee who will pose as Hideko's maid and persuade her of his beneficent qualities, and after the wedding they will have Hideko committed to an insane asylum and disappear with her fortune. However, not only are there greater evils present in the mansion that Sook-hee imagines, but the plan is complicated by her own growing attraction and empathy for the lonely, beautiful Hideko.

This film has major twists that serve as entire plot points. Watch out for spoilers.


Contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Heroism: In the Fingersmith novel, Sue Trinder's family and criminal cohorts are aware of—and the true masterminds behind—the plan to switch Sue and Maud at the insane asylum, since Maud is actually their biological daughter. They are completely unaware of the plan in this adaptation, and assist Sook-hee (Sue Trinder) when she lets them know what has occurred.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: In the Fingersmith novel Gentleman was gay, and his interest in Maud was entirely monetary. Fujiwara has an overwhelming desire for Hideko.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Maud's uncle was no saint, but he never participated in Cold-Blooded Torture as Kouzuki does, nor openly labor an incestuous desire for his niece.
  • Adorkable: Sook-hee is a delightful mix of earnestness and awkwardness starting from bumping her head on her bunk as she immediately responds to Lady Hideko's cry for help, and her impulse to laugh at stressful situations such as to ease the tension when Hideko asked her about her mom's death.
  • All Men Are Perverts: Uncle Kouzuki runs an entire cottage industry based on selling, presenting, reading, forging and even partially reenacting traditional Japanese pornography to a close circle of rich buyers, all sweaty while listening to those scrolls.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Hideko in an intimate moment softly tells Sook-hee that she's fine in enduring all the abuse and is resigned to a life with no hope of freedom as long as she's with her. She'd prefer to stay in the estate rather than be without Sook-hee and be doomed to a life of loneliness and misery.
  • Animal Motifs: Hideko's appearance and behavior is meant to be reminiscent of a white longhair cat.
  • Aroused by Their Voice: Hideko's uncle forces her to read from pornographic novels—and reenact certain scenes—for the entertainment and demonstration of other rich men. Every time she is shown performing, the men are held enraptured and are shown awkwardly shuffling to cover their arousal.
  • Ascended Extra: Maud's Evil Uncle is a fairly minor characer in the novel. Kouzuki is the Big Bad here.
  • Bad Guys Do the Dirty Work: Kouzuki brings Fujiwara back to his estate after being tipped by Hideko as to his location, and then Fujiwara kills himself and Kouzuki. Sook-hee and Hideko are able to escape without needing to kill either of them directly.
  • Becoming the Mask:
    • Hideko acted as the well-meaning noblewoman by favoring Sook-hee over the other maids and making sure that Sook-hee knows this. Eventually, Sook-hee became the most important person in her life that Hideko would rather kill herself than send her to the asylum which she originally had in mind.
    • Sook-hee is eager to serve Hideko and was on board with Fujiwara's plans but as the heist progressed, she had doubts as to what extent is she fooling Hideko: does she serve her as part of her plan, or was she serving her because she genuinely wants to? This caused her to be infuriated with Fujiwara, then forcing herself to focus on her original plan when she thought that Hideko was truly in love with him.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed:
  • Birds of a Feather: Hideko invokes this in the extended version by telling Sook-hee that she's also an orphan as part of her gambit to make it easier for her to identify with a noblewoman and make her care for her sincerely.
  • Black Comedy: Hideko is ultimately Driven to Suicide and attempts to hang herself, only for Sook-hee to literally catch her and hold her suspended. In their ensuing conversation Sook-hee is so overcome with emotion that she drops Hideko, so Hideko completes her fall and begins to choke on the rope and thrash about. It takes a few seconds for Sook-hee to remember her and rush to pick her back up.
  • Bonding Over Missing Parents: Hideko and Sook-hee talked about their mothers which also led to both women acknowledging their attraction to each other but didn't result to confessing it just yet.
  • Bookends: Sook-hee and Hideko both close their narratives by describing each other.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Kouzuki is Korean, but idolizes English and Japanese people and culture. He despises Korea and being Korean, and earned money and power by accommodating himself to the Japanese when they occupied Korea.
  • Broken Bird: Lady Hideko, but she gets better.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: It takes a lot of effort and serious emotional trauma for both Sook-Hee and Hideko to finally express their feelings to each other.
  • The Caper: Entire premise of the film. Or at least so it appears in Part One.
  • The Casanova: Fujiwara claims that he could get almost any woman to submit to his wishes. Other characters acknowledge that he probably could, but he says that Hideko is a woman that he could not control in this fashion, and so never even tries.
  • Category Traitor: Uncle Kouzuki, who made a fortune on helping Japan annex Korea and now denounces his nationality, aiming for full naturalization as Japanese.
  • Cerebus Callback: In the first act, Sook-hee silently scolds Fujiwara and it is framed as awkward and comical. It recognizes their dire straits since this scene is where the three are first shown together. In the second act of the extended cut, Hideko is getting concerned while he makes fun of Sook-hee as he goads her to join him, resembling a schoolyard bully who tries to get his friends into belittling someone. It depicted Sook-hee's hapless status as the true victim of the scam and that Fujiwara's wanton disregard for her humanity was anything but harmless and funny.
  • Character Development:
    • Sook-Hee starts as a greed-driven petty thief, interested mostly in material wealth and getting herself out of the thieving business. She never expected to fall in love. Eventually her feelings make her unable to continue with the entire con and she is so guilt-ridden, she explains the entire plan to Hideko. Which in turn saved her from ending up used by Hideko, who also realized her affection to her "maid".
    • Hideko goes from referring to herself as a corpse and being clearly suicidal to a free spirit in loving companion of Sook-Hee. While originally she was more than willing to send the poor girl to a mental asylum just to run away, she almost hangs herself, not able to carry on any further with her plan which would hurt probably the only person she loves and who loves her.
  • The Charmer: Count Fujiwara's main skill as a Con Man is being suave and extremely convincing. When he can't charm someone right away, he's not above playing open cards, explaining his entire original plan to Hideko and thus charming her anyway - with his honesty.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The rope in Hideko's hatbox.
    • The opium Fujiwara promised Hideko.
    • Kouzuki's basement and what goes on in there.
    • Fujiwara's odd blue cigarettes.
    • The butterfly hairpin that Boksun bequeathes to Sook-hee was used to pick the locks on her leg cuffs which enabled her to escape the asylum.
  • Cherry Blossoms: The film liberally uses both categories of symbolism with the cherry tree outside of Hideko's window. It's heavily associated with life and death, being the tree Hideko's aunt and later Hideko hung herself on. Hideko mentioned in her narrative that she arrived in Korea along with the cherry tree from Mt. Fuji, showing a foreigner forcibly having to re-establish herself in a strange land. After Lady Kouzuki died, Hideko said that the cherry blossoms bloomed brighter and longer past the period when they should wilt, marking this a new period of her life which she didn't choose once again, being the lector of her uncle's collection of pornography—his prized possessions that show his allegiance to colonialism and Japan. Several shots focus on falling cherry blossoms with the noose as Hideko and Sook-hee pass by it while they're leaving the estate and her old life.
  • Con Man: Fujiwara is the son of a Korean peasant, but poses as a Japanese nobleman in order to exploit Japan's status as the powerful force in Korea.
  • Conspicuous CG: The ship deck is very obviously a set with a green screen.
  • Cyanide Pill:
    • Fujiwara offers Hideko a vial of concentrated opium as an incentive when she explains how much she fears "the basement". A few drops of the opium will render her unconscious for hours, and the whole bottle will kill her painlessly and quickly.
    • Fujiwara has mercury-impregnated cigarettes prepared in the event that things do not go according to plan.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: How the wedding night actually went - Hideko pleasured herself, not even allowing Fujiwara to look at her naked body. Sook-Hee only heard the scream of ecstasy, while Fujiwara lied to Uncle Kouzuki, saying it was both too beautiful to be describe and what kind of husband would tell a story about such an intimate moment anyway.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Hideko.
    Respected Uncle, it always pained me to see you straining to speak flawless Japanese before the Count from Nagoya, and even to quiver your voice like a noble man. So I’m happy to inform you that you no longer need to do so. That man is the son of a Korean farmhand. Oh, did my gift arrive safely? Please tell this to my gift in Korean: I’m afraid that in real life, no woman feels pleasure at being taken by force. But, for sending me Sook-hee out of all the girls in the world, I feel slightly grateful.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Lady Hideko. She was a cold and ruthless woman who regarded young women like Sook-hee as expendable and not significant enough to be missed, to falling in love with her that she would rather kill herself when Sook-hee rejected her by choosing to continue with the heist.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Hideko was able to endure all of Kouzuki's abuse in silent despair, but when Sook-hee chose to continue the con after she confessed her own feelings, she could not bear to continue either living in Kouzuki's house or to betray Sook-hee. Taking the rope she had long stored for this occasion, she attempted to hang herself.
  • Destroy the Abusive Home: Hideko decides to show Sook-Hee the contents of the library before they run away. The maid ends up so enraged by the content of all those books and scrolls, she starts to tear them apart and trash the entire collection. She eventually ends up with Hideko throwing as many of the books as possible into a small waterpool, while stomping on them and adding ink to the water to completely destroy them.
  • Didn't See That Coming: Fujiwara is vigilant and observant; qualities that make him an effective con man and even more adept than Kouzuki when it comes to cunning, but even he didn't anticipate that the women he underestimated could possibly fall in love with each other and forego their self-involved interests to grant each other freedom.
  • Dirty Old Man: Uncle Kouzuki is a sadistic, perverted old bastard who forces his wife and later niece to read erotic novels and even reenact their scenes for other rich men before he auctions off the works.
  • Disappeared Dad: We never learn what happened to Hideko's father, while Sook-Hee is implied to be from an accidental pregnancy.
  • Driven to Suicide:
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Quite possibly the happiest ending we'll see in a Park Chan Wook movie. It takes a long time and quite a bit of devious scheming but Sook-hee and Hideko leave the country together, rich from Hideko's inheritance, and Fujiwara and Kouzuki kill each other off.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: Sook-hee does this with Hideko a few times. She at least tries to be subtle about it.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep":
    • Hideko's aunt is not named in-story and everyone refers to her in relation to her niece.
    • Downplayed with Hideko herself. Her given name comes up every now and then, but most just refer to her as the Lady.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Sook-hee and her thieving companions are no saints, but even they're disgusted by Kouzuki wanting to marry his own niece.
  • Emotionless Girl: Hideko cycles through many variants throughout the film. In the first act, she seems mostly lonely and slightly crazy and occasionally appears to show some emotion, though very subdued. Then in the second act, it's revealed that her uncle raised her explicitly to be completely emotionless, and a major point of suspense is whether everything she does is a scheme and whether she really loved Sook-hee. Eventually she is revealed in fact to be a Defrosting Ice Queen who was able to feel for the first time when meeting Sook-hee. Still, she is quite skilled at hiding her feelings.
  • Eviler Than Thou: Fujiwara is an amoral conman and Sook-hee is a thief, and Hideko is also a schemer, but Uncle Kouzuki is the cruelest, most depraved, most powerful person in the film. Hideko would rather die than be taken to "the basement", and Fujiwara poisons himselfand manages to catch Kouzuki at the same time—once he falls into his hands.
  • Evil Uncle: Kouzuki is the brother-in-law of Hideko's mother, who is her direct guardian since her mother and his wife have both died. He is a sadistic, perverted Dirty Old Man.
  • Eyes Never Lie: Fujiwara's seduction of women revolves heavily around eye contact, and he claims that he immediately knows that he cannot seduce Hideko because of the way she looked back at him when he glanced at her. When she later makes a show of trying to seduce him he flatly refuses her since he can see that she still is not actually interested in him.
    Those aren't the eyes of one who wants it.
  • Face Death with Dignity:
    • Sook-Hee's mother, a notorious and extremely good thief, was eventually caught and hanged for her crimes. On being executed, she laughed.
    • Fujiwara criticizes Kouzuki's obsession with sex with Hideko, claiming that a gentleman would never tell him the details he wants. When Kouzuki succumbs to the mercury smoke in the room, Fujiwara then begins taking deeper and deeper breaths himself and thinks back on time he spent with Hideko.
  • The Fagin: Played With in case of Sook-Hee's aunt, as she genuinely cares for the girl and shows her real affection... but in the same time comes from a family of thieves and makes sure the girl is trained all the possible skills useful in the trade.
  • Fake Aristocrat: "Count" Fujiwara, a Korean peasant masquerading as a Japanese nobleman.
  • Fake Mark:
    • Hideko, who is working with Fujiwara to convince Sook-hee that Hideko is the victim of their scheme. Sook-hee is the actual mark of the original plan.
    • Sook-hee, who teams up with Hideko to run the con on Fujiwara, who does not know that his and Hideko's plan to con Sook-hee has been halted.
  • Fate Worse Than Death: "The basement", which Uncle Kouzuki uses to hold Hideko completely under his thrall. It contains printing equipment that he uses as torture devices, along with a tank holding a giant octopus. It is never explicitly addressed, but the implication is that Kouzuki uses the octopus on people as well.
  • Fingore: Uncle Kouzuki cuts off the fingers on one of Fujiwara's hands with a paper cutter.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: Not only Uncle Kouzuki despise being Korean, he also has a serious thing for Japanese and English culture, going so far as ordering himself a bizarre mansion, being half-Edwardian design, half traditional Japanese.
    Sasaki:It reflects Master's admiration for Japan and England.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When Uncle Kouzuki leaves the estate on business he tells Hideko that with him gone she has a week of freedom, but that she must always remember "the basement". "The basement" is the torture chamber where Kouzuki murdered Hideko's aunt, and which he showed her with the threat that he would bring her down there if she ever tried to escape. It is Fujiwara who winds up in the basement at the end of the film, after he helped Hideko escape Kouzuki but was unable to keep her from escaping him as well.
    • While making the initial pact with Hideko, Fujiwara promises to give her a fatal dose of opium that she can ingest to commit suicide if she's ever captured, showing that he plans ahead for such outcomes. In the finale, he commits suicide by using a lethal dose of mercury, which also kills Uncle Kouzuki.
    • The film diverged from the source material when Sook-hee proactively helped Hideko determine the authenticity of the earrings supposedly given by Fujiwara, foretelling the alliance between the two women. In Fingersmith, it has a similar scene where Maud regards Gentleman's gift to her as pretty. They're actually unremarkable but Sue keeps her opinion to herself.
    • The subtle difference between the looks that Sook-hee each gave to Hideko and Fujiwara reveals the true partnership of the heist when the money finally arrives.
  • Gambit Pileup: Sook-hee was initially on the con with Fujiwara to fool Hideko but he is actually running a scam with Hideko on Sook-hee and Kouzuki, while Sook-hee and Hideko are running their own scam on Fujiwara and Kouzuki.
  • Give Me Back My Wallet: A variant. Sook-hee pickpockets Fujiwara the first time she meets him, and he doesn't even appear to notice — until he reaches down her cleavage a few seconds later to get the item back.
  • Go Among Mad People: Fujiwara's plan is to commit Hideko to a mental institution after their wedding in order to have her money free and clear to split with Sook-hee. Flashback's reveal that Hideko's uncle would threaten to send her to an institution when she was a child and did not fully submit to his control. It is Sook-hee who is actually sent to the institution as part of Fujiwara and Hideko's joint plan, but she is freed in only a few days as part of her and Hideko's plan.
  • Gold Digger:
    • Count Fujiwara is a classic example, trying to woo Hideko, take over her money and quickly get rid off her.
    • Meanwile Uncle Kouzuki is already a rich man, ironically an owner of a gold mine, but marrying his own niece would make him ever more rich, as there is a substantial fortune on her side.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: All the different kimonos Hideko and her aunt wear. Plus the fashion of the 30s, of course.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: When Sook-hee believes Lady Hideko is truly falling for the Count, she's... displeased, to say the least.
  • Groin Attack: Fujiwara's Last Words are relief that he is going to die with his genitalia intact.
  • Hands-On Approach: Sook-hee showed Hideko the pleasures of foreplay by taking a lollipop then tasting it and putting its flavor all over her mouth and lips, so that Hideko will associate kissing with good tastes and enable her to fully experience her partner through it. It then becomes unclear who's seducing who since Hideko is aware of her effect on Sook-hee and knows that she finds it difficult to deny her.
  • Hidden Depths: Appearances deceive.
    • Lady Hideko grew to be a cold person following the abuse she got from her uncle and being treated as expendable but is actually highly intelligent, longs for affection, constantly in search of a mother figure, and a romantic as indicated when she described Sook-hee with the beautiful and miraculous contradiction of being the person who saved her life by tearing it apart.
    • Sook-hee may not be averse to sending a young woman to a mental asylum in exchange of a life free from crime but she is actually considered too caring, earnest, and motherly which prevents her from being effective in swindling Hideko, not to mention that she balks at Fujiwara's ruthlessness in deceiving everyone regardless of their familiarity to him.
    • Fujiwara is ruthless and amoral though that didn't prevent him from being attracted to Hideko, admiring her intelligence and for being among the few people to see through his ruse.
    • Kouzuki is a perverted scoundrel yet his constant reading of erotica regardless of literary merit has given him an understanding of what makes a good story. As he told Fujiwara, it's not about knowing and anticipating the facts but it's how the story unravels and reveals to the reader on how they got there.
  • Hypocritical Humor: When Fujiwara keeps asking for them, Kouzuki comments on his "silly penchant for cigarettes"... all while loading himself an opium pipe.
  • Imagine Spot: When Fujiwara attended his first Hideko pornography reading, he imagined himself, Hideko and Kouzuki as the characters in the scene being read.
  • Impaled Palm: Uncle Kouzuki drills a hole into the hand of Fujiwara that did not have its fingers cut off.
  • In Love with the Mark: Sook-hee begins falling for Hideko almost immediately upon meeting her, stunned at her beauty. It is a mutual trope, considering that Sook-hee is the real mark of Hideko and Fujiwara's con, and Hideko falls in love with Sook-hee, too. This leads both women to confess their respective con plans to one another and making an new plan to fool Fujiwara.
  • Inner Monologue: Sook-hee's thoughts are heard sporadically throughout Part 1, then Hideko's in Part 2. The monologue halts in Part 3.
  • Innocence Lost: The training Hideko went through as a little girl. And then her uncle showing her what's in the basement, while explaining what he really did to the auntie and why. She was about 8.
  • Innocent Fanservice Girl: Hideko is by her own admission still barely a child and acts extremely innocent, completely unaware how much she's teasing Sook-Hee in the process. If only Sook-Hee knew what kind of books Hideko is reading for her uncle...
    Sook-Hee: You must be a natural!
  • Intimate Artistry:
  • Irony:
    • This applies to all four main characters: for them to live a life that feels most true to them, they have to live a lie.
    • Lady Hideko and Sook-hee’s ultimate goal is freedom but their short-term goal involves the suppression of another’s freedom.
    • Sook-hee laments that Hideko is contemplating the agony of falling in love leading her to think that she’s losing her heart to a fake thinking it was for the count. Later scenes show Hideko’s perspective that her feelings for Sook-hee has deepened after the latter has comforted her over her mother’s death. Sook-hee is actually the “fake”.
      • The aforementioned incident was turned further on its head when Sook-hee became jealous of Fujiwara and was disappointed that her time spent with Hideko has to be cut short so that he can continue courting her not knowing that this is part of their plan to fool her.
    • The more the uncle ingratiates himself to Japanese nobles to appear more Japanese in order to deny his Korean heritage, the more he exposes himself to be full of pretensions and unable to escape his true heritage.
    • Fujiwara practices his reactions to Lady Hideko as being “flummoxed” by her beauty but Sook-hee upon seeing Lady Hideko was completely caught off-guard that she can only articulate her feelings by using a word she’s heard just recently: flummoxed.
    • Lady Hideko is unable to deny Sook-hee’s beauty and elegance when she dresses her in her own clothes but wants to downplay it by repeating Fujiwara’s words which only emphasizes her sincerity and how enamoured she is that Sook-hee was left completely flustered and it broke her concentration as she was admiring her reflection.
  • The Law of Conservation of Detail: Numerous important elements aren't exactly shown in the Part One, but only implied to be there. For example, when Hideko writes Sook-hee's name on a piece of paper, we aren't shown what she actually have written - it was "Countess Fujiwara Hideko". The letter forged by Fujiwara as recommendation? Instructions for Hideko how to handle Sook-hee. The overheard wedding night? A Date with Rosie Palms. And so on and forth. This allows to easily twist what audiences took for granted in Part Two starts, finally disclosing the entire charade.
  • Lonely Doll Girl: Hideko never left the mansion of her uncle for years, substituting friends with her doll that she had since childhood. In the extended version, the doll is implied to be a confidant. She's 25 according to Word of God and still carries it around. This might or might not be part of the ruse, as she genuinely appears to carry it. Sook-Hee meanwhile jokingly remarks how ladies are nothing but big dolls to dress up for their maids.
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Hideko is miserable as an heiress living on an estate, with no friends and under the control of her uncle. Her true misery does not stem from being rich itself, but from her uncle's sadistic and torturous control over her life, exploiting her for his own sexual gratification and as a prop in his pornographic industry.
  • Lost in Translation:
    • The implication of how absolutely evil and depraved the uncle is from his mere introduction is somewhat lost to non-Korean audiences, as it might have less impact on them how he helped Japanese to annex the country or how bad it was to collaborate with Japanese colonial government. Sure, it sounds bad, but in eyes of Koreans that makes him pure demon. Him trying to pose as Japanese and get naturalized just seals it.
    • A lot of foreign audiences won't understand the great implications of Sook-hee no longer using formal Korean in answering Hideko's questions if she likes her and asking her to never betray her as they're making love. Not replying in honorifics can mean one is addressing a younger person or someone who's intimate with them. The boundaries between the maid and the noble lady has finally blurred.
    • Hideko ends her narrative in part 2 by describing Sook-hee and it's subtitled in English as "The savior who came to ruin my life. My Tamako, My Sook-hee." If they were to follow Korean syntax it will be transliterated as "The person who came to ruin my life, my savior. My Tamako, My Sook-hee"; Tamako is the person who came to ruin her life, Sook-hee is her saviour.
  • Love at First Sight: Sook-hee is absolutely stunned at Hideko's beauty when she first sees her, and her own narration halts as she is "flummoxed".
    Sook-hee's Inner Monologue: Bloody hell. He should have told me she was so pretty.
  • Love Redeems: Sook-hee begins to fall for Hideko as soon as she meets her. She grows more and more reluctant to follow through with the plan as she sees how miserable Hideko is and how awful Fujiwara is. However she does not deviate from the plan and even encourages Fujiwara to move things along so that she can put the experience behind her. She is actually running a separate con on Fujiwara after she had confessed everything to Hideko when she saw that Hideko herself was unwilling to run on a con on her because of her feelings.
  • The Mark: There are four different 'marks':
    • Hideko is the direct mark. Fujiwara will marry her in order to steal the fortune she inherited from her parents. She is actually a Fake Mark who was in on the plan the entire time, targeting Sook-hee.
    • Uncle Kouzuki is the indirect mark. He is planning to marry Hideko himself so that he can combine her fortune with his own, and would lose that fortune if Fujiwara is successful.
    • The end of Part 1 reveals that Sook-hee is the real mark of the scam at Hideko's estate. She is also a Fake Mark, running a double scam with Hideko against Fujiwara after Hideko decided that she could not continue with the original plan.
    • The end of Part 2 reveals that the final mark is Fujiwara.
  • Male Gaze: Park made a conscious attempt to avoid this. The love scenes with Sook-hee and Hideko were filmed remotely, with only female crew members allowed on set.
  • Market-Based Title: The film title in Korean is 아가씨 (Ahgassi) which translates to The Lady, referring to Lady Hideko. The English International title is The Handmaiden, referring to Sook-hee.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Fujiwara realizes immediately that he could never honestly seduce Hideko, so he proposes that they fake a marriage in order to fool everybody else. After the scam is completed, he proposes that they actually get married and stay together. By this point Hideko has long since broken their original partnership without him realizing it, as she is in love with Sook-hee.
  • Meaningful Echo: Sook-hee listened wryly to Fujiwara's dubious scheme in making Lady Hideko fall in love with him and wondering how an amoral conman can know anything about love knowing that he's too selfish to make any genuine connections. Hideko dismisses Fujiwara's attempts of ingratiating himself by asking him on how can he know anything about love when he expressed no remorse in sending Sook-hee to the asylum and also arranging to have her killed.
  • Missing Mom: Both women never knew their own mothers and while Sook-hee was fortunate enough to be raised by a loving aunt who raised her as her own and gave her an idea of how her mother felt about her, Hideko was always left wondering what kind of woman her mother was and is actually guilt-ridden that she might have inadvertently killed her since she died giving birth to her.
  • Mood Whiplash: The film goes from one extreme mood to another which can break tension or to emphasize the enormity of the situation that no emotion, no matter how incongruous couldn't be awakened or amplified.
    • The second love scene ends on a quietly powerful, sweet note then the scene cuts to Hideko's art.
    • Hideko's in despair and petrified as she lets go from the tree branch but then expresses her disappointment when she finds that Sook-hee catches her fall. The scene continues to go back and forth between maudlin and darkly comedic.
    • Hideko's seduction of Fujiwara starts with a sense of foreboding as though she's driven by lust as Fujiwara kisses her body, but her grimace at seeing him do it took the scene into a hilarious turn as she can barely contain her disgust while having to focus on convincing him that she's into it.
  • Motor Mouth: One of the maids speaks so fast everyone has a hard time following her. The subtitles for her lines were further speed up, to make it harder to follow.
  • My Life Flashed Before My Eyes: As Fujiwara is dying, he has flashes of memories of Hideko and his time with her. These flashes fade in and out along with his breathing, and also begin to freeze on still images as he nears the end.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: The Fujiwara clan played a major role in Japanese politics during Heian period, making the surname easily accessable to barely educated farmer's son posing as a noble.
  • Never Learned to Read: She might be a great thief and good infiltrator, but Sook-Hee can't even read or write her own name. This is important for more than one scheme.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Kouzuki, who reads and collects increasingly perverted erotic fiction and delights in forcing Hideko to read and reenact its content in front of an audience. The briefly-glimpsed contents of his dreaded basement suggest a deeper level of vileness to Kouzuki's predilections - we get to see various human body parts preserved in jars, among them a vagina. Then there's the octopus...
  • No Dead Body Poops: Discussed when Hideko thinks back to her aunt's suicide. The body was pristine after she hung herself, with no voided bowels, which Hideko has learned is what actually happens when you hang yourself. This prompts her uncle to explain that he had killed her himself after she tried to escape.
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: The relationship between Fujiwara and Hideko is one huge game of pretend. She feels nothing but disgust toward him and while he falls for her, he's never allowed to even touch her, unless it's necessary.
  • No Name Given: Numerous characters remain unnamed, but most notably:
    • We never learn how uncle Kouzuki was named before marrying into the Kouzuki family, nor do we learn lady Kouzuki's first name.
    • Sook-hee's mother remains nameless.
  • No Sense of Personal Space: Fujiwara, at least when it comes to the two women. Highlights include stroking Sook-hee's hair and face mere minutes after first meeting her, and leaning over Hideko's shoulder and touching her arm during their art lessons.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: Fujiwara claims that women get the most pleasure when they are taken against their will. After Hideko has knocked him out and delivered him to Kouzuki, in her letter she asks Kouzuki to tell him that no woman takes greater enjoyment when forced.
  • Of Corset Hurts: Played for laughs when Hideko dresses up Sook-Hee.
    Sook-Hee: It's suffocating. How do ladies wear such things?
    Hideko: You think this is suffocating?
    (Gilligan Cut to Hideko lacing the corset tighter with a foot on Sook-Hee back, while she can't catch her breath)
  • Ojou: Hideko is an incredibly wealthy young woman from a noble family, with a vast wardrobe and requires a servant to get dressed.
  • Old Money: Kouzuki family was already rich. Which is notable, as Hideko's aunt apparently still married a Nouveau Riche to make even more money. If she only knew what kind of man her husband is...
  • Once More, with Clarity!: Part 2 expands greatly on events that were seen during Part 1, casting the ending of Part 1 in an entirely different light.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Count Fujiwara is obviously not his real name, since he's not even Japanese. Assuming the forged passport was his, then his real name is Go Pandol, but that too could be fake given his profession .
  • The Ophelia: Exploited by Hideko in the first act, a beautiful but deeply sad and lonely young woman, usually dressed in white, who claims to see ghosts and is haunted by the death of her aunt. While Hideko is indeed haunted by her aunt's death, and is undoubtedly lonely and unhappy, this didn't prevent her from pretending to see her aunt's ghost which caused Sook-hee to be terrified of her new surroundings, thus allowing Hideko to conceal her calculating attitude and to allay any suspicion from Sook-hee.
  • Out with a Bang: One of the pornographic stories that Hideko reads—and is forced to reenact— involves a Knight being garroted just as he is having sex.
  • Parental Incest: Figuratively, at least. Hideko's parents are dead, but her guardian (her mother's brother-in-law) is planning to marry her for her fortune, and he also forces her to read from pornographic novels—and even reenact certain scenes—for other rich men.
  • Parental Substitute: Both Sook-Hee and Hideko ended up with their respective aunts playing the role of mother. In case of Hideko it was short-lived, as she eventually hanged herself, but still showed to be protective and caring for the girl.
  • Puppy Love: The initial stage of Sook-Hee's affection and relationship with Hideko is nothing more than pure cuteness, further driven by how innocent Hideko is.
  • Red Right Hand: Uncle Kouzuki's tongue has been stained black, and he is even referred to as "black-tongued" when Fujiwara is trying to convince Hideko not to continue wasting her life under his control.
  • Removing the Rival: Sook-hee is able to get her job at Kouzuki's house in the first place because Junko, her predecessor was fired. It's later revealed that Fujiwara intentionally seduced Junko because he knew she'd be fired for having sex with a guest, leaving a vacant position for Sook-hee.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The snake at the entrance of the library keeps Sook-hee out and Hideko and her aunt trapped inside. Kouzuki is directly compared to a snake. When the library is destroyed, Sook-hee's final act is to smash it.
  • The Reveal:
    • At the end of Part 1, Hideko is working with Fujiwara to have Sook-hee committed to a mental institution in her place.
    • At the end of Part 2, Hideko and Sook-hee are working together to run a con on Fujiwara.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • The gloves Hideko constantly wears, which in the same time prevent the touch and remind how much she desires to be touched and loved.
    • Language is crucial in the film. It's used as a tool or as a weapon, can underscore deception or to reinforce the truth. Lady Hideko speaks Japanese to her uncle, when she does the public readings, or speaking to the servants. However, she speaks to Sook-hee in Korean to appear more sincere and warm. Eventually, she ends up telling her innermost feelings to Sook-hee using the language and can't bring herself to teach her to read Japanese because of painful memories. She also talks to Fujiwara in Korean who was initially the only person who knows of her plans to escape the mansion. According to the actor, Fujiwara speaks in Japanese when he's lying; then Korean when he's telling the truth.
    • Hideko gave Sook-hee a new pair of shoes after realizing that her own shoes were stolen by her maids as a practical joke. Sook-hee sees this as a gift of the master and cared for them well. On the ferry en route to Shanghai, Hideko kneels and ties Sookhee's shoes showing that they're freed from their social class.
    • Hideko's costume being the kimono is itself a language of symbolism, showing the status of a woman in society, her age, and the season. Her kimono during the wedding night is white and has a floral design resembling cherry blossoms, which actually isn't, concealing her true motives from Fujiwara. It's supposed to signify innocence but when Hideko cut her hand and drew blood from the knife matching the flowers on her kimono, she enphasizes her agency over her body and identity.
    • According to Park Chan Wook, doors represent social class. The person opening the door particularly lowers theirs to serve the other person. In part one, Sook-hee opens the door for Hideko. Close to the end of the first act and after leaving Kouzuki's library, both open the door together. The end of part 3 shows Hideko opening the door for Sook-hee.
    • When Sook-Hee and Hideko run away from the mansion, Hideko is unable to cross the stone wall surrounding the park by herself. Instead, Sook-Hee builds a ladder out of their suitcases and helps climb over it, thus allowing Hideko to reach true freedom.
  • Satisfied Street Rat: Sook-Hee's backstory - she comes from a long line of thieves and her aunt made sure to both take care for her and teach her family "trade".
  • Setting Update: From Victorian London to Japanese-occupied Korea in The Thirties.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: When Hideko dresses Sook-Hee in one of her costumes, styles her hair and gives her her earrings, she looks just gorgeous. Hideko agrees, commenting that all dressed up, Sook-hee looks like a lady like her.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: How much sheltered Hideko is? She never left the mansion grounds in her life ever since her arrival.
  • Shout-Out: Oldboy (2003) by the same director has an infamous scene with the main character eating a live octopus. This movie has the living octopus as well (as an allusion to The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife painting), that is kept in the basement and lives in a glass tank.
  • Skewed Priorities: Hideko tells Sook-hee her uncle plans to sell the gold mine in order to afford another collector's library of pornography. Sook-hee says it makes more sense to sell the books to buy more gold.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Lady Hideko has the elegance, grace, and education befitting a noblewoman; but she's just as ruthless if not the most cunning when the circumstances call for it, and not as easily fooled as others were led to believe.
  • Slipping a Mickey: Hideko tries to drug Fujiwara by pouring the concentrated opium into his wine glass, but he simply does not drink any of the wine. She forces the issue by sipping from his glass herself, then kissing him and forcing it into his mouth.
  • Smells Sexy: We can say that Sook-hee's attraction to Lady Hideko was ignited because of her scent.
    • Sook-hee sang a lullaby to lull Hideko to sleep then she switched languages mid-sentence as she breathes in Hideko's scent. Sook-hee was surprised when she learned that Hideko can speak and understand Korean because it meant that she knew what she was singing to her the night before.
    • In the extended cut, Sook-hee is lying on Hideko's bed and has her nightgown draped on her face to satisfy her frustration and to temper her emotions, after she saw Hideko and Fujiwara kissing.
  • Smug Snake: Fujiwara is so full of himself, he comes off as outright sleazy when not forced to play a part of a charming aristocrat.
  • Social Climber:
    • Kouzuki gained money and influence by accommodating himself to the Japanese when they occupied Korea, and married into a Japanese family to further advance his own status.
    • Fujiwara poses as a Japanese nobleman because he wants the kind of life the aristocracy leads.
    What I desire is, how shall I put it...the manner of ordering wine without looking at the price? [Nods to the waiter to pour the wine without looking at it] Something like that.
  • Spoiled Sweet: Hideko, despite being cold, gives Sook-hee a pair of her own shoes when she sees that some of the other maids have stolen her slippers as a practical joke, and allows Sook-hee to dress up in her clothing and jewelry. She is actually in on the con with Fujiwara, and is exposing Sook-hee to her wealth so Sook-hee will be distracted by the potential money and not get wise to the real plan. However, as the con progresses she finds that she really cannot go through with condemning her to an insane asylum.
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music:
    • Sook-hee sang The Song at the End of the Century, in order to console herself during Hideko's wedding night with Fujiwara. It speaks of love, longing, and nostalgia for one's homeland and was first heard in 1930's Japanese-occupied Korea.
    • The Korean childhood folk song sang by the children is about friendship and intimacy which was then interrupted by the Japanese soldiers as they threatened them because the soldiers thought they were the ones interrupted by the children while they marched. It foreshadows the impending relationship between Lady Hideko and Sook-hee, interrupting each other's lives with the same intention but has a divergent fate for the other person who's unable to succeed in carrying it out.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Hideko ends up dressed up as male, with fake mustache and all, to avoid the goons sent by her uncle, obviously looking for two women travelling together.
  • Sweetheart Sipping: Played for Drama at the climax. Hideko cannot get Fujiwara to drink the drugged wine, so she sips from his glass, kisses him, and forces it into his mouth in a way that he thinks is sexual foreplay.
  • Taking You with Me: Fujiwara waits until he is with Uncle Kouzuki in "the basement" before lighting his mercury cigarettes so that he can kill Kouzuki at the same time.
  • Teeny Weenie: Apparently Fujiwara has serious problems and issues about his manhood. He constantly talks about it and sex, but Sook-Hee delivers an epic smackdown when he forces her to rub him.
    Sook-Hee: Don't ever again put my hand on your tiny joke of a cock.
  • Thanatos Gambit: When Fujiwara is being taken back to Kouzuki's estate, he takes out his cigarette case and lights three cigarettes at once. The remaining two cigarettes are the mercury cigarettes he has to kill himself if he needs to, and by leaving only those two in the case he knows he will get one of them if he asks for a cigarette. Fujiwara does this in order to Die With Dignity rather than be tortured to death (and lose his cock) in Kouzuki's dungeon.
  • Thieves' Guild: Sook-Hee and her family are forming one of those, based on blood ties. Her mother was apparently a legendary thief.
  • Verbal Tic: Lady Hideko is very prone to picking up phases and specific words used by people surrounding her. This usually comes with some nice Call-Back in following scenes.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Sook-hee pickpockets Fujiwara when she first meets him, and slips the item she steals into her cleavage. He has no problem reaching down there to get it back.
  • Violently Protective Girlfriend: Hideko is a muted version. In the extended cut, her fingers linger over the tilted vial as she's tempted to pour what remains of it into Fujiwara's drink after she put just enough to render him unconscious, and a few drops more would kill after she learned that he's plotting to have Sook-hee murdered in the asylum. Ultimately, she stuck to their original plan of just sedating him.
  • Wham Line: "Good day, Countess. Do you remember me?" Said by the doctor... to Sook-hee.
  • Wife Husbandry: Kouzuki attempts this with Hideko.
  • Working with the Ex: Sasaki, head of the household staff, is actually Kouzuki's former wife who he divorced in order to marry into a Japanese family. They still sleep together, and she is party to his abuse and control of Hideko.
  • Woman in White: Hideko often dresses in white, particularly in the first act. In particular, she wears a white kimono while reading for her uncle and a white dress in many scenes with Sook-hee. The white symbolizes her mysteriousness and possible insanity. Hideko is a ghost of a person, growing up in an emotionally repressive, isolated, and death-filled environment. The white also evokes her innocence which is of course zig-zagged all over the place in the course of the film.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Hideko is anything but the sweet, naive girl Sook-Hee initially takes her for.
  • Your Heart's Desire: A recurring theme is the thought of what a person would be willing to give up in order to be with the one they love (Or at least lust).
    "If she/I could be yours for ten minutes, what would you give in exchange?"
    "Whatever your heart desires. Anything in this whole wide world."
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/TheHandmaiden