‘The Handmaiden’ is a terrific South Korean adaptation of an English-language novel

Min-hee Kim and Kim Tae-ri in ‘The Handmaiden’

“It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”  – Joe Mantegna as “Mike” in 1987’s House of Games.

The Handmaiden is an elegant film that seems at first glance to be the story of an heiress being scammed out of her fortune by two opportunistic con artists.  But as the story unfolds we learn there is a lot more going on here than that first glance shows.

“Hideko” (Min-hee Kim) live in the mansion owned by her uncle “Kouziki” (Jin-woong Jo) and she is the target of the aforementioned con artists.  “Count Fujiwara” (Jung-woo Ha) is the identity of a Korean man who has been planning this operation for some time.  He spent time in Japan and now, as a member of Japanese nobility, he is positioned to make his move.  He arranges for “Sook-Hee” (Kim Tae-ri) to become the new handmaiden to Hideko as part of the scheme.  As “Tamako” she is the perfect handmainden for Hideko, fluent in both Korean and Japanese and quite attentive.  But it is her background as pickpocket, thief and opportunist that makes her the perfect partner for the Count’s plan.

Min-hee Kim and Jin-woong Jo in ‘The Handmaiden’

Hideko’s uncle plans to ultimately marry his niece, to take full control of the wealth she inherited, in order to continue financing his lifestyle and his adoration of his large library of erotic novels.  He has trained Hideko since she was young to provide dramatic readings of these novels, which he then auctions off to his select clientele of wealthy men.  Of course, the books he is actually parting with aren’t the originals, but cleverly-made forgeries.

However Count Fujiwara’s plans is for him to court Hideko, and with Tamako providing the right encouragement, convince her to come to Japan with him to marry.  Then once they are wed, he will arrange for Hideko to be committed to an institution for the insane, and he and Sook-Hee will split her wealth and go on to lead wonderful lives.

Prior to the explosion of poker’s popularity in 2004 with the first World Series of Poker win by a true amateur, there was an old saying around Las Vegas poker rooms.  If a player took a look around the table and couldn’t identify which player was the actual “sucker”, then they needed to look in a mirror.  The same can be said of confidence games, as they are little more than musical chairs played out until the last person standing is the one who has been taken.  The Handmaiden is all about who is actually conning whom and who will be left standing and held to answer.  The answer may be predictable to the particularly observant viewer, but even the keenest eyed member of the audience is in for a series of surprises.

Jung-woo Ha and Min-hee Kim in ‘The Handmaiden’

Director Chan-Wook Park, who did a fine job adapting Fingersmith, the novel by Sarah Waters, mixes great performances by his company in front of a lush visual backdrop of 1930’s era Korea and in the final act, Japan.  While the characters all speak both Japanese and Korean, the subtitles make the distinction between the two by use of white text for Korean and yellow text for Japanese.

Be warned that there are several fairly graphic sex scenes and near the end some gruesomeness that some may find unsettling.  Don’t let that stop you from seeing this excellent motion picture.

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