Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Handmaiden

Go To
"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 than Sook-hee imagines, but the plan is complicated by her own growing attraction and empathy for the lonely, beautiful Hideko.


Watch out for major, unmarked spoilers.

Contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Heroism: In Fingersmith, 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.
  • Adaptation Title Change: The Handmaiden is based on the book Fingersmith.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: In Fingersmith Gentleman is gay, and his interest in Maud was entirely monetary. Fujiwara claims that his interest in Hideko is also purely financial, but he quickly develops a sexual obsession over her.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Maud's uncle is no saint, but he never participates in Cold-Blooded Torture as Kouzuki does, nor openly labors an incestuous desire for his niece.
  • Advertisement:
  • 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:
  • 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 character 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.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: For once, this is both justified and used as a plot point: Hideko realized that her aunt had been murdered instead of the suicide cover story when she saw that her body hadn't shat itself, which is what happens when you actually try to hang yourself.
  • 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 and loves her? This causes 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 leads to both women acknowledging their attraction to each other but doesn't result in confessing it.
  • 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.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Full of Hideko's entire inheritance, which Fujiwara cashes out after their marriage of convenience.
  • Broken Bird: Lady Hideko, but she gets better.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Sook-Hee is pretty ditzy, often Saying Too Much. She's still a gifted thief.
  • Call-Back: One of the books that Kouzuki has Hideko read contains a description of lesbian lovers inserting Ben Wa balls in each other. In the last scene, Sook-hee and Hideko are doing exactly that.
  • 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: The 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 for 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 that 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.
  • Chastity Dagger: Hideko used one on Fujiwara during their wedding night, making it clear that he's not even allowed to touch her. She cuts her hand with it and smear the blood over the bedsheet to feign loss of her virginity.
  • 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 bequeathed to Sook-hee is used to pick the locks on her leg cuffs that 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 hanged 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.
  • Christmas Cake: It's not really mentioned within the story, but Hideko is 25 and still unmarried. Considering her wealth and status (and combined with the time period) this is a huge deal... and it's a subtle sign that something is seriously wrong with the household.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: In international markets, the Japanese dialogue was subtitled in yellow font, and the Korean dialogue was subtitled in white font.
  • The Comically Serious: Lady Hideko’s deadpan reactions are humorously incongruous in several situations, including the dire ones.
    • Her immediate dismissal of Fujiwara’s compliments during their first actual conversation while mirroring back his exact same words that he said to her uncle, something that they’re both aware that she eavesdropped on.
    • She used the full advantage of her appearance as a naively innocent virgin as she was seducing Sook-hee when it couldn’t be more blatant that she’s fully capable of seducing, and just as aware that she herself is being seduced.
    • She went from despair to exasperation when she realised that her suicide attempt was halted as she simply tells Sook-hee to let her body fall.
  • The Con: 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.
  • 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.
  • Consummation Counterfeit: There's a scene from Sook-hee's perspective where she hears Hideko and Fujiwara having sex next door and Hideko's sheets are shown to have a bloodstain on it the morning after. In the replay of this scene, however, it's shown that Hideko pulled out a knife to prevent Fujiwara from getting into bed with her, masturbated on her own to make it sound like they were having sex, and then cut her hand with the knife to leave the bloodstain on her sheets.
  • Creepy Basement: Hideko fears her uncle's basement, which is later revealed to be a torture chamber.
  • Creepy Uncle: Hideko's Uncle Kouzuki has incestuous designs on her.
  • 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 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 nobleman. So, I’m happy to inform you that you no longer need 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 water pool, 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.
  • The Ditz: Sook-Hee is... not very bright when it comes to social matters. At first.
  • Double Entendre: A non-sexual variant. At the end of Part I, Sook-hee's narration says that Hideko has been a "rotten bitch" since she was a child. On first viewing, when it seems that Hideko has betrayed Sook-hee by helping Fujiwara throw her into the madhouse, that sounds like Sook-hee is spiting her for her betrayal. However, it's actually an ironic segue into a flashback showing Hideko's childhood, in which Kouzuki would call Hideko a "rotten bitch" when she would speak out of turn.
  • Driven to Suicide:
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Quite possibly the happiest ending we'll see in a Park Chan Wook film. 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.
  • Ethereal White Dress: Hideko often wears white, and does so when Sook-hee first meets her. Hideko is obsessed with death, haunted by her mother's death and the hanging of her aunt, and seems to be on the verge of suicide. Combined with her cold attitude, she comes across as rather ghostly.
  • 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 cruellest, 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. While 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 the 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.
  • 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.
  • Female Gaze: There are many amorous point-of-view shots of Sook-hee and Hideko from one or the other's gaze.
  • Fingore: Uncle Kouzuki cuts off the fingers on one of Fujiwara's hands with a paper cutter.
  • Flashback: Some flashbacks explain how Sook-hee is a criminal who was placed in Hideko's household as part of a scam.
  • Foil: Lady Hideko and Sook-hee for each other, with unexpected results.
    • Despite being from the city, Sook-hee is a naive, earnest young woman compared to jaded and fearful Hideko who has never gone out of her uncle’s estate since she was five.
    • Lady Hideko and Sook-hee dressing and undressing each other after the dinner reinforces their similarities and differences.
    • Uncle Kouzuki and Fujiwara. They're both self-assured, greedy, lustful men who are obsessed with Hideko and pretend to be something they are not, and they are both killed by somebody whom they underestimated. Both of them die as a result of their sexual fascination with Hideko (Fujiwara lets his guard down and is drugged by her, while Uncle Kouzuki is so eager to hear the details of Hideko's wedding night that he doesn't notice the strange blue smoke filling the basement). However, while Uncle Kouzuki never changes for the better, Fujiwara comes to develop a deep respect for Hideko's strength of character, and dies after taking out his captor and Hideko's tormentor.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: Uncle Kouzuki, who loathes being Korean, has a serious thing for Japanese and English culture, going so far as building himself a bizarre mansion of half-Edwardian, half traditional Japanese design.
    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.
  • Gilded Cage: The estate that Hideko lives in has the most expensive mansion at the time, and Sasaki says that it's style of combining Edwardian Era architecture and Japanese design is only one of its kind in Korea. However, Hideko who is not lacking for luxurious jewelry and clothing, was forbidden to leave the estate under the threat of cold blooded torture by Kouzuki in case she attempts to escape.
  • 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. Flashbacks 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 of her.
    • Meanwhile Uncle Kouzuki is already a rich man, ironically an owner of a gold mine, but marrying his own niece would make him even richer, 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.
  • Hereditary Suicide: Subverted twice. Hideko's aunt apparently hanged herself due to her uncle's horrific abuses, and Hideko keeps a rope to hand to be able to kill herself if the abuse should become too much. However, Hideko's aunt's suicide turns out to have been feigned by her uncle, who actually killed her himself. Although Hideko does jump from the tree ready to kill herself at one point, Sook-hee catches her and holds onto her to prevent her from doing so. It ultimately becomes a Happily Failed Suicide.
  • 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 about 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.
  • I Love the Dead: Implied when Kouzuki lists off titles in his collection of pornography, which includes The Mortician's Bedroom.
  • 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.
  • The Ingenue: Hideko is a subversion. She plays the part of a sheltered, beautiful, and virginal aristocrat who is ripe for seduction to the letter, but she's actually a cold, intelligent, and depressed abuse victim.
  • 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 a 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 "pratically 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!
  • Interrupted Intimacy: After Fujiwara sends Sook-hee to replace the watercolour to oil paints, Sook-hee returns to see Hideko on top of Fujiwara, interrupting their moment. Part 2 shows that Hideko and Fujiwara weren’t actually doing anything, just pretending to be intimate to make Sook-hee think her con with Fujiwara is working.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Hideko, riven with guilt over the plot to chuck Sook-hee into an asylum, goes to hang herself from the tree at the edge of the garden. She drops from the branch, only to be caught in mid-air by a tearful Sook-hee, who confesses her part in what she thinks is the plot to chuck Hideko into an asylum. Hideko promptly confesses the real plot and her part in it, which leads to a little Black Comedy when Sook-hee flips out in rage at Fujiwara, causing Hideko to choke on the rope for a little bit before Sook-hee remembers and helps her down.
  • 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 have 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.
  • Karma Houdini: Sasaki, who is nearly as loathsome as Kouzuki, gets no comeuppance whatsoever and disappears from the film in the third part.
  • The Law of Conservation of Detail: Numerous important elements aren't exactly shown in 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 wrote - it was "Countess Fujiwara Hideko". The letter forged by Fujiwara as a 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:
    • 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 have 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 Played Straight 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.

  • 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.
  • Marrying the Mark: 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.
  • Match Cut: A match cut serves as the transition from Part I to Part II. Sook-hee being dragged away by asylum attendants at the end of Part 1 is matched with Hideko being restrained by a servant at the start of the Part 2, as we see how she was abused as a child by her monstrous uncle.
  • Maternal Death? Blame the Child!: Hideko blames herself for her mother's death in childbirth.
  • 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 the tension or 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.
  • Mouth To Mouth Force Feeding: 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.
  • 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.
  • Naughty Tentacles: Kouzuki has a print of The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife. When Sook-hee sees it, she flies into a rage and begins to destroy Kouzuki's collection of erotica.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: The Fujiwara clan played a major role in Japanese politics during the Heian period, making the surname easily accessible 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.
  • Never Suicide: Hideko's aunt didn't kill herself, which Hideko realized when she saw how pristine the corpse was. Kouzuki murdered her.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Kouzuki, who reads and collects disturbing pornography 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...
  • Nice Gal: Zigzagged. Hideko is nice if cold, but she 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.
  • No Dead Body Poops: Discussed when Hideko thinks back to her aunt's suicide. The body was pristine after she hanged 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.
  • Obviously Evil: Kouzuki has "Evil Uncle" practically written on his forehead from the moment he shows up. We find out that he's not only a Boomerang Bigot with delusions of sophistication but also a disgusting sexual deviant and killed his own wife, harbors sexual desires for his niece, and has his basement converted into a torture dungeon, complete with body parts in jars, that's so horrible Hideko would rather die than go back there...
  • Of Corset Hurts: Played for laughs when Hideko dresses up Sook-Hee.
    Sook-Hee: [The brassiere]'s suffocating. How do ladies wear such things?
    Hideko: think this is suffocating?
    (Gilligan Cut to Sook-Hee shrieking as Hideko laces her into the full corset, steadying herself with a foot on Sook-Hee's back and yanking the lace)
    Sook-Hee: Miss, you're killing me!
  • 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...
  • Ominous Owl: Owls are hooting in the background as Sook-hee is brought to the Japanese house for the first time in darkness.
  • 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 as 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 hung 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.
  • The Quisling: Kouzuki is a Korean Social Climber who helped Japan take over Korea and was given a gold mine in exchange.
  • Race Lift: To go with the Setting Update, characters go from being white Brits to East Asians.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Lady Hideko has black hair and is much paler than her servant Sook-hee. She's considered a high-status beauty, fitting with the standards of the time.
  • Red Right Hand: Uncle Kouzuki's tongue has been stained black with pen ink, 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 prevent her from touching anything.
    • Language is crucial in the film. It's used as a tool or as a weapon, can underscore deception or 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 1, Sook-hee opens the door for Hideko. Close to the end of the Part 1 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 her 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 '30s.
  • Shear Menace: Subverted. Scissors have been used as weapons in five of Park's previous films – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Thirst, and Stoker – but not in this one, though it gets close. In the climax, Kouzuki gets a pair of scissors to cut Fujiwara's genitalia off, but dies of the mercury smoke before he can do more than cut off his underwear.
  • 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: Played With. Sook-hee pegs Hideko as one, as she has never left the mansion grounds since her arrival and seems naive about matters of love and sex. While the former is true, the latter is not, and Hideko is much savvier than she lets on.
  • 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.
    • The pornographic story read by Hideko's aunt in Part 2 was an excerpt from Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), a Chinese erotic classic. The ending has Sook-hee and Hideko re-enacting a scene from the book while on their journey to China.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Hideko ends up dressed up as male, with a 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.
  • Tainted Tobacco: Fujiwara prepares a self-inflicted variation, always carrying cigarettes that are poisoned with mercury, so if things ever go really wrong for him, he can light one up and die on his own terms. In the end, he pulls a Taking You with Me when he knows he's lost and will be murdered (slowly and painfully) by Kouzuki—once they're both locked down in the basement, he asks for permission to have One Last Smoke.
  • 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 Face Death 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.
  • Uptown Girl: The handmaiden Sook-Hee, who has a background as a thief out of necessity, falls in mutual love with the wealthy Lady Hideko.
  • 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 privy to his abuse and control of Hideko.
  • Virgin in a White Dress: Zig-zagged. Hideko often dresses in white, particularly in the first act in many scenes with Sook-hee. This seemingly represents her innocence and purity (Sook-hee is astonished by how little she knows about sex). Subverted later on, as Hideko is revealed to be anything but innocent. In particular, she wears a white kimono while reading explicit erotic literature for her uncle, and a different white kimono on her wedding night in which she doesn't actually have sex.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Hideko is anything but the sweet, naïve 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."
  • Zip Me Up: The lesbian sexual tension is ramped Up to Eleven in an early scene where Sook-hee and Hideko are lacing each other into and out of corsets.

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: