Set in Japanese-occupied Korea during the 1930s, The Handmaiden takes place mostly in a large country estate where the slightly unstable young Lady Hideko lives with her Uncle Kouzuki, who secretly hopes to acquire his niece's fortune. Hideko is being determinedly romanced by Count Fujiwara, her art instructor, but she's more attracted to Tamako, her newly hired maid.
But there's a twist: Tamako is actually Sookee, a pickpocket living in a curious household of female thieves and con artists straight from an all-woman production of Oliver! The unofficial Fagin to the group is the Count himself, who has hired Sookee to manipulate Hideko and push her toward his attempts at seduction. A willing participant in the plot initially, Sookee/Tamako is pushed into a double life, obeying the contemptible Count's orders while warming to her new mistress.
And then everything is turned inside out. For the first hour, Park Chan-wook's film builds itself up as a visually sumptuous melodrama in which every character becomes increasingly untrustworthy. After an unexpected but hardly unconventional plot twist, The Handmaiden proceeds to dismantle and rebuild itself. Villains become victims (and vice versa), the virtuous become debauchees and the shrewd plans of each party fall subject to even shrewder ones.
Like a Victorian puzzle box hiding a collection of pornographic sketches, the film misleads and misdirects the viewer through one mystery after another. Though it's based on an acclaimed mystery novel (Sarah Waters' Fingersmith, set in Victorian England), there's more at play here than just intricate plotting and cross-plotting one expects from a genre film.
The Handmaiden is about a rotten world buried under a genteel surface, a place where duplicity has become so ingrained that the lies and illusions start to overlap. There is a Sadeian spirit to the film, and also a bit of Dickens and a great deal of villainy that wouldn't be out of place in a nineteenth century penny dreadful. But there is also a kind of innocence, a sense of discovery. De Sade-like fiction and lurid antique erotica figure prominently in the story, but they seem like little more than curios, relics of past obsessions, held in contrast to the curiously gentle sexual explorations of Sookee and Lady Hideko.
Though much of The Handmaiden is remarkably explicit, there's also a sense of naivete; in a film where everyone wears a mask, these moments finally allow the two women to put their respective guards down, acting solely on a desire that doesn't involve wealth, power or deception.