Love and lies. At their heart, most stories told are stories about love, or about lies, or woven out of the push and pull of the two. So by that logic, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, which clocks in at number 10 on Pajiba’s Favorite Movies of the 2010’s list, must be one of the greatest stories ever told. The film is usually described with a string of buzzy tags (gothic! lesbian! romance! revenge! psychosexual! thriller! drama!) pieced together at random, which makes sense because it is undeniably all of those things in any order you string them. What makes it my favorite movie of the decade, however, isn’t what it is but what it does, and that’s what I’d like to talk about. Because The Handmaiden isn’t just a movie about characters lying and falling in love despite, or even because of, those lies. The movie itself is a carefully crafted deception, a lie of omission spun out into a three-act structure, manipulating and unwinding our own expectations every step of the way. And the love? That’s the reaction of the audience, delighting in being played like a fiddle. We’re the ones falling in love despite the fact that we’re being lied to so masterfully. Or, let’s be honest, because of it.
It was hard to have a real conversation about The Handmaiden’s plot when it first came out in 2016, because the absolute worst crime you could commit against this film would be to say too much. For every thousand blowhards on Twitter jumping at spoiler shadows (OMG there’s a Baby Yoda, get over it!), there’s maybe one piece of entertainment — one audience experience — that truly deserves protection, and this movie fits the bill. So it’s a relief to finally be able to talk about it in hindsight, and not be limited to explaining only the first set up of what becomes a ceaselessly unfolding series of partnerships and double-crosses between the four main characters. The central plot is simple at first glance: A conman called Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) hires a local pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to go undercover as the titular handmaiden in order to convince a lonely heiress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), to marry him. Once married, the Count will be have Hideko committed to an insane asylum and take control of her inheritance. Complicating matters are the fact that Hideko lives with her mysteriously controlling uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), and the fact that Sook-hee begins to fall in love — and into bed — with her master.
That’s only the surface, though. The film is laid out in three parts, altering our understanding of the events that we’ve already seen by changing perspectives and adding more detail along the way. First is the reveal that Hideko had been in on the Count’s plans from the start, and together they planned to split her inheritance once he helped her get away from her uncle — but to do so, they needed somebody to commit to the asylum in her place. Enter Sook-hee. We also learn why Hideko is so desperate for her freedom, and the depths of her uncle’s secret depravity. Then there’s another shift, as we see that Hideko also genuinely falls for Sook-hee, and the pair team up to control the narrative and escape the machinations of the men who are manipulating them. Sook-hee was already in on the plot when she was committed to the asylum, and while she’s got a friend on standby to spring her loose, Hideko is busy knocking out the Count and escaping with all the money.
Up to this point, the movie has been a gorgeous puzzle, changing its entire shape with every new piece of information revealed, but in its third part it defies a completely different set of expectations — the ones we brought in from outside. Some viewers may be familiar with the novel on which The Handmaiden is based — Sarah Waters’s “Fingersmith” — but that familiarity will get you almost nowhere when parsing the film. Not only has the setting been brilliantly shifted from Victorian-era Britain to Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, but the climax also diverges completely from the original text. Then there’s the expectations fans of Park Chan-wook might have, going in. After all, he’s particularly well-known for the brutal, uncomfortable films in his so-called “Vengeance trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance), so it would makes sense for viewers to anticipate a bloodbath ending that leaves no character unscathed.
Instead, the film offers a different vision of revenge. For Sook-hee, who was used and discarded by the Count, and Hideko, who was used and abused by her uncle, the greatest revenge is… freedom. They escape together, fleeing with Hideko’s fortune on a boat to Shanghai. They choose happiness. They choose each other. Instead of allowing their love to derail their lies, they lie in service of their love. They don’t kill anyone, and the only act of violence they commit is against Kouzuki’s perverse library. Instead, they set the wheels in motion for the men up to destroy each other, and that’s exactly what happens as the final twist brings both men to mutually assured destruction by their own volition. We can appreciate the justice served, but it’s all the sweeter because Hideko and Sook-hee didn’t stick around to see it. They didn’t need to.
From start to finish, The Handmaiden is a wholly engrossing and satisfying experience. And while I could point to the performances, or the cinematography, or the lush set design, those aren’t the things that have stuck with me all these years. We were tasked not with voting on the decade’s “best” films, but our “favorite” films, and me? I’m a story junkie. As a viewer I’ve watched countless shocks and surprises, easter eggs and reveals in the theater. I’ve laughed and cried. I’ve appreciated simple stories well-told, and complex stories built to confound and impress. But there are only a handful of times when I’ve experienced a story that built itself directly in the mind of the viewer, making me an active participant in the telling. Sure, The Handmaiden is a story about lies, and about love. But the greatest lies it told were told to me. And that’s why I love this movie so goddamn much.
This piece is part of Pajiba’s Favorite Movies of the 2010s series.