The Handmaiden (2016)

Movie


The Handmaiden (2016)
Ah-ga-ssi (original title)

1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, a new girl (Sookee) is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress (Hideko) who lives a secluded life on a large countryside estate with her domineering Uncle (Kouzuki). But the maid has a secret. She is a pickpocket recruited by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count to help him seduce the Lady to elope with him, rob her of her fortune, and lock her up in a madhouse. The plan seems to proceed according to plan until Sookee and Hideko discover some unexpected emotions.
South Korea
IMDb   8.1 /10
Metacritic   84 %
TheMovieDb    8.3 /10
RottenTomatoes
FilmAffinity   7.6 /10
Information
Release Date2016-06-01
Runtime2h 25mins
GenreDrama, Romance, Thriller
Content RatingNot Rated (Not Rated)
AwardsTop Rated Movies #215 | Won 1 BAFTA Film Award. Another 66 wins & 106 nominations.
CompanyCJ Entertainment, Moho Film, Yong Film
CountrySouth Korea
LanguageKorean, Japanese
Sook-Hee (as Tae Ri Kim)
Min-chae Yoo
Min-chae Yoo
Ggeut-dan
Miss Sasaki (as Hae-suk Kim)
Lady Hideko
Count Fujiwara
Kyu-jung Lee
Kyu-jung Lee
Maid 1
Rina Takagi
Rina Takagi
Hideko's Mother
Uncle Kouzuki (as Jin-woong Jo)
Geun-hee Won
Geun-hee Won
Butler
Jong-Dae Kim
Jong-Dae Kim
Mansion Driver
Han-sun Jang
Han-sun Jang
Kouzuki Porter

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden (Korean: 아가씨; RR: Agassi; lit. '"Lady"') is a 2016 South Korean erotic psychological thriller film directed by Park Chan-wook and starring Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo and Cho Jin-woong. It is inspired by the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, with the setting changed from Victorian era Britain to Korea under Japanese colonial rule.

The film was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It was released in South Korea on 1 June 2016, to critical acclaim. It grossed over $38 million worldwide.

At the 71st British Academy Film Awards, the film won the category of Best Film Not in the English Language.


Plot

Part 1

In Japanese-occupied Korea, a con man operating under the sobriquet of "Count Fujiwara" plans to seduce a Japanese heiress named Lady Hideko, then marry her and commit her to an asylum in order to steal her inheritance. He hires a pickpocket named Sook-hee to become Hideko's maid and encourage Hideko to marry him.

Hideko lives with her Uncle Kouzuki, a Korean man who helped the Japanese take over his country in exchange for a gold mine. Kouzuki then uses this wealth to feed his obsession with rare books, selling forgeries to further accumulate money and books. Sook-hee's main job is to help Hideko prepare to read for Kouzuki's guests. Returning frustrated from a reading, Hideko demands Sook-hee sleep next to her. The two end up making love, under the pretext of preparing Hideko for her married life with the Count. Sook-hee begins expressing reluctance about the plan, but when Hideko herself suggests she loves someone other than the Count, Sook-hee insists on the marriage. Hideko slaps her and violently throws her from the room.

When Kouzuki leaves on business for a week, Hideko and Fujiwara elope. After cashing out Hideko's inheritance, it is revealed that Hideko's naïveté was part of the con. She and Fujiwara double-crossed Sook-hee and convinced the asylum that she is the "Countess" to have her committed in Hideko's stead.

Part 2

A series of flashbacks show that Hideko's “reading practice” was in fact Kouzuki teaching her to erotically read sadistic pornography since she was five years old. The flashbacks show a regime of psychological and physical abuse that eventually degrades the sanity of Hideko's aunt, who is eventually found hanged from a tree in the yard, and Hideko takes over as the reader for the auctions. When Hideko questions the description of a hanging in a book she has to read, Kouzuki tells her that he murdered her aunt using torture devices in the basement after she attempted to run away.

In the more recent past, the Count realizes seducing Hideko would be impossible and instead includes her in the plan to elope and then split her inheritance. When Hideko expresses her fear of her uncle, the Count promises her a vial of fast-acting poison as a wedding present, so that she can never be taken to the basement. Hideko demands the Count find her a girl to hire as a maid, to commit to an asylum in Hideko's place.

While being instructed by the Count, who takes advantage of Sook-hee's illiteracy, Hideko unexpectedly falls in love with her. Hideko tries to confess her love, but when Sook-hee insists the marriage go on, Hideko throws her from the room and tries to hang herself. Sook-hee saves her and both admit to their plots. Hideko helps Sook-hee write a letter to her family to say she has teamed up with Hideko, and to hatch a plot to get Hideko and Sook-hee away from the men who have been manipulating them. Hideko shows Sook-hee the books she was forced to read and Sook-hee begins destroying the library. Hideko calls Sook-hee "her savior" and joins in destroying her uncle's collection.

Part 3

Sook-hee's friend Bok-soon sets a fire at the asylum and poses as a firefighter to rescue Sook-hee. Hideko poisons Fujiwara's wine, causing him to pass out while she takes the money and leaves. The women reunite and flee together, disguising Hideko as a man to avoid detection.

Kouzuki captures Fujiwara upon receiving a letter from Hideko detailing Fujiwara's deception. He tortures Fujiwara in his cellar with his collection of antique bookmaking tools and presses him for sexual details about his niece. Fujiwara makes up a story about their wedding night but a flashback shows that he watched Hideko masturbate before cutting her hand on a knife to stain her sheets, refusing to consummate the marriage. When Kouzuki presses for more details, Fujiwara convinces him to give him one of his cigarettes. After smoking, a disgusted Fujiwara refuses to give further details. Kouzuki notices the cigarettes are producing blue smoke. Fujiwara reveals that his cigarettes had been laced with mercury and the toxic gas within the smoke kills them both.

On a ferry to Shanghai, China, Sook-hee and Hideko celebrate their newfound freedom by making love once again.


Cast

  • Kim Min-hee as Lady/Izumi Hideko
  • Kim Tae-ri as Maid/Nam Sook-hee
  • Ha Jung-woo as Count Fujiwara
  • Cho Jin-woong as Uncle Kouzuki
  • Kim Hae-sook as Butler Madame Sasaki
  • Moon So-ri as Hideko's aunt
  • Lee Yong-nyeo as Bok-soon
  • Lee Dong-hwi as Goo-gai
  • Jo Eun-hyung as young Hideko
  • Rina Takagi as Hideko's mother
  • Han Ha-na as Junko
  • Lee Ji-ha as Owner of Ryokan
  • Jeong Ha-dam as Housemaid
  • Choi Byung-mo as Audience member

Production

In December 2014, it was reported that Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo and Cho Jin-woong signed on for the film. Kim Tae-ri was selected from 1,500 candidates to play the role. Shooting for the film began in June 2015 and concluded in October 2015.

The books The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife and Jin Ping Mei were featured in the film.


Release

In February 2016, CJ Entertainment announced that The Handmaiden was pre-sold to 116 countries, including to Amazon Studios for the US. The film premiered in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation, and Ryu Seong-hee won the Vulcan Award of the Technical Artist for her art direction work on the film. The film was also screened in the Special Presentations section of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, where The Playlist named it as one of the 15 best films of the festival. In South Korea, the film was released on 1 June 2016 and sold more than 4 million tickets.

In the United States, the distribution of the film was handled by Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures. The film opened in limited release across five cinemas in New York City and Los Angeles, and played in 140 additional cinemas in the following weeks. Eventually, the film grossed more than $2 million in the United States theatrically; the film outgrossed Stoker and became the highest-grossing Park Chan-wook-directed film in the United States. It was released on DVD in the US on 24 January 2017 and Blu-ray on March 28, 2017.

In the United Kingdom, the distribution of the film was handled by Amazon Studios and Curzon Artificial Eye. The film grossed more than $1.8 million in the United Kingdom theatrically, and became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in the UK in 2017.


Reception

Critical response

The Handmaiden received critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 95%, based on 210 reviews, and an average score of 8.3/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Handmaiden uses a Victorian crime novel as the loose inspiration for another visually sumptuous and absorbingly idiosyncratic outing from director Park Chan-wook." On Metacritic, the film holds a weighted average score of 84 out of 100, based on 40 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim". The Economist described the film as a masterpiece. Benjamin Lee of The Guardian ranked it four out of five stars and described it as "a hugely entertaining thriller".

Response to the explicit scenes

The film's numerous sexually explicit scenes between the two main female characters sparked some controversy. Laura Miller at Slate described the scenes as "disappointingly boilerplate" and featuring "visual clichés of pornographic lesbianism, bodies offered up for the camera’s delectation." However, The New Yorker's Jia Tolentino said that "the women know what they look like, it seems—they are consciously performing for each other—and Park is deft at extracting the particular sense of silly freedom that can be found in enacting a sexual cliché."

Top ten lists

The Handmaiden was listed on numerous critics' top ten lists.

  • 1st – Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com
  • 2nd – Dan Callahan, RogerEbert.com
  • 2nd – Noel Murray & Katie Rife, The A.V. Club
  • 2nd – Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects
  • 2nd – Sean Mulvihill, RogerEbert.com
  • 2nd – Tasha Robinson, The Verge
  • 2nd – William Bibbiani, CraveOnline
  • 3rd – Amy Nicholson, MTV
  • 3rd – Witney Seibold, CraveOnline
  • 3rd – Jen Yamato, The Daily Beast
  • 3rd – James Berardinelli, Reelviews
  • 3rd – Bilge Ebiri, L.A. Weekly
  • 4th – Kimberley Jones, The Austin Chronicle
  • 4th – Scott Tobias, Village Voice
  • 5th – Lean Pickett, Chicago Reader
  • 5th – Kate Taylor, The Globe and Mail
  • 5th – Josh Kupecki, The Austin Chronicle
  • 5th – Haleigh Foutch, Collider
  • 5th – Erin Whitney, ScreenCrush
  • 5th – Peter Freeman, DC Outlook
  • 6th – Sean Axmaker, Parallax View
  • 6th – John Powers, Vogue
  • 6th – Alonso Duralde, TheWrap
  • 6th – Christy Lemire and Peter Sobczynski, RogerEbert.com
  • 6th – Mike D’Angelo & A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club
  • 7th – Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic
  • 7th – Matt Zoller Seitz & Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com
  • 7th – Christopher Orr, The Atlantic
  • 7th – Steve Davis, The Austin Chronicle
  • 8th – Matt Singer, ScreenCrush
  • 8th – Ty Burr, The Boston Globe
  • 8th – Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
  • 8th – Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
  • 8th – David Edelstein, New York Magazine
  • 9th – The Guardian
  • 10th – Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle
  • 10th – Dennis Dermody, Paper
  • Top 10 (listed alphabetically, not ranked) – Walter Addiego, San Francisco Chronicle

In 2019, The Guardian ranked The Handmaiden 41st in its 100 best films of the 21st century list. In 2020, The Guardian also ranked it number 1 among the classics of modern South Korean Cinema.


Accolades

List of awards and nominations
YearAwardCategoryRecipient(s)Result
2016Alliance of Women Film JournalistsBest Non-English-Language FilmPark Chan-wookWon
Austin Film Critics AssociationBest FilmThe Handmaiden4th Place
Best DirectorPark Chan-wookNominated
Best Supporting ActressKim Min-heeNominated
Best Adapted ScreenplayPark Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyungNominated
Best CinematographyChung Chung-hoonNominated
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
Blue Dragon Film AwardsBest FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Best DirectorPark Chan-wookNominated
Best ActressKim Min-heeWon
Best New ActressKim Tae-riWon
Best CinematographyChung Chung-hoonNominated
Best Art DirectionRyu Seong-heeWon
Best MusicJo Yeong-wookNominated
Technical AwardJo Sang-kyeong (costume design)Nominated
Boston Society of Film CriticsBest CinematographyChung Chung-hoonWon
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
Buil Film AwardsBest FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Best DirectorPark Chan-wookNominated
Best ActressKim Min-heeNominated
Best New ActressKim Tae-riWon
Best CinematographyChung Chung-hoonNominated
Best Art DirectionRyu Seong-heeWon
Best MusicJo Yeong-wookNominated
Buil Readers' Jury AwardPark Chan-wookWon
Busan Film Critics AwardsBest New ActressKim Tae-riWon
Cannes Film FestivalPalme d'OrPark Chan-wookNominated
Queer PalmPark Chan-wookNominated
Vulcan AwardRyu Seong-heeWon
Chicago Film Critics AssociationBest FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Best DirectorPark Chan-wookNominated
Best Adapted ScreenplayPark Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyungWon
Best CinematographyChung Chung-hoonNominated
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
Best Art DirectionThe HandmaidenWon
Critics' Choice AwardsBest Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Dallas–Fort Worth Film Critics AssociationBest Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
Director's Cut AwardsBest ActressKim Min-heeWon
Best New ActressKim Tae-riWon
Florida Film Critics CircleBest Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenRunner-up
Best CinematographyChung Chung-hoonRunner-up
Korean Association of Film Critics AwardsTop Ten Films of the YearThe HandmaidenWon
Best CinematographyChung Chung-hoonWon
IndieWire Critics PollBest FilmThe Handmaiden7th Place
Best DirectorPark Chan-wook5th Place
Best Original Score or SoundtrackThe Handmaiden8th Place
Best CinematographyThe Handmaiden4th Place
Best EditingThe Handmaiden8th Place
Los Angeles Film Critics AssociationBest Production DesignRyu Seong-heeWon
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
Melbourne International Film FestivalMost Popular Feature FilmThe HandmaidenRunner-up
New York Film Critics OnlineBest Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
San Diego Film Critics SocietyBest Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
San Francisco Film Critics CircleBest Adapted ScreenplayPark Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyungNominated
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
Best Production DesignRyu Seong-heeWon
St. Louis Gateway Film Critics AssociationBest Production DesignRyu Seong-heeWon
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenRunner-up
Toronto Film Critics AssociationBest Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenRunner-up
Vancouver Film Critics CircleBest Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics AssociationBest Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Women Film Critics CircleBest Foreign Film by or about WomenThe HandmaidenWon
2017Asian Film AwardsBest Supporting ActressMoon So-riWon
Best NewcomerKim Tae-riWon
Best ScreenplayPark Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyungNominated
Best Production DesignerRyu Seong-heeWon
Best EditorKim Jae-bum and Kim Sang-bumNominated
Best Costume DesignerJo Sang-kyeongWon
Baeksang Arts AwardsGrand PrizePark Chan-wookWon
Best FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Best DirectorPark Chan-wookNominated
Best ActressKim Min-heeNominated
Best Supporting ActorCho Jin-woongNominated
Best New ActressKim Tae-riNominated
Best ScreenplayPark Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyungNominated
Chunsa Film Art AwardsBest DirectorPark Chan-wookNominated
Best ActressKim Min-heeNominated
Best New ActressKim Tae-riNominated
Technical AwardRyu Sung HeeNominated
Jung Jung HoonNominated
Dorian AwardsDirector of the YearPark Chan-wookNominated
Foreign Language Film of the YearThe HandmaidenWon
LGBTQ Film of the YearThe HandmaidenNominated
Visually Striking Film of the YearThe HandmaidenNominated
Houston Film Critics SocietyBest PictureThe HandmaidenNominated
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
National Board of ReviewTop 5 Foreign FilmsThe HandmaidenWon
National Society of Film CriticsBest Foreign Language FilmThe Handmaiden2nd Place
Online Film Critics SocietyBest PictureThe HandmaidenNominated
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenWon
Satellite AwardsBest Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Saturn AwardsBest International FilmThe HandmaidenWon
Best Costume DesignJo Sang-kyeongNominated
Seattle Film Critics SocietyBest Picture of the YearThe HandmaidenNominated
Best Foreign Language FilmThe HandmaidenNominated
Best Production DesignRyu Seong-heeWon
Best Costume DesignJo Sang-kyeongWon
2018British Academy Film AwardsBest Film Not in the English LanguagePark Chan-wook and Syd LimWon
Empire AwardsBest ThrillerThe HandmaidenNominated
London Film Critics Circle AwardsForeign Language Film of the YearThe HandmaidenNominated