This post includes a plot summary and an explanation about the ending of the film Ah-ga-ssi / The Handmaiden (2016). Beware of spoilers.
Directed by Park Chan-Wook, the psychological thriller is based on a 2002 novel named Fingersmith written by Sarah Waters. The film stars Kim Min-hee as Lady Hideko, Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee, Ha Jung-woo as Fujiwara and Cho Jin-woong as Kouziki.
The plot of “The Handmaiden” is divided into three parts, each showing the events from a different perspective. The first part is the story from Sook-hee’s point of view, whereas the second part is from Hideko’s perspective. Then the third part reveals the truth behind the events and the protagonists’ fate.
What Happens in “The Handmaiden” (Plot Explained)
Part 1: It’s the 1930s, and Korea is under the rule of the Japanese. A con artist, Fujiwara, poses as a nobleman and hires a pickpocket, a young woman named Sook-hee. He wants her to work as a handmaiden for Lady Hideko, the heiress of a massive fortune.
Fujiwara plans to seduce Hideko, marry her, and then commit her to an asylum. After that, the con artist intends to take her money away. Sook-hee’s role is to persuade Hideko to fall in love with Fujiwara and help him with his scheme.
However, things become more complicated when Sook-hee and Hideko actually grow closer and develop feelings for each other. Nonetheless, Fujiwara’s plan moves forward, and when he takes Hideko to the asylum, someone else takes her place.
Part 2 (And Plot Twist): The staff takes Sook-hee instead of Hideko. It turns out that Lady Hideko is not as innocent as she appears to be.
Actually, Hideko’s custodians have been grooming her since a very young age to read erotica to aristocrats. Her uncle (Kouziki) is the mastermind behind those eccentric gatherings. Hideko and her aunt are just puppets to satisfy his deviant desires.
Also, Hideko and Fujiwara knew each other prior to Sook-hee’s hiring. The two met during an erotica reading. At first, the con artist only had eyes on Hideko’s fortune. But then he took an interest in the heiress.
After hearing about Hideko’s situation, Fujiwara came up with a different plan. If she agrees to split her inheritance with him, he will help her escape from Kouziki. Hideko agreed and suggested hiring a maid to commit her to an asylum in her place.
Part 3 (Another Plot Twist): Hideko and Sook-Hee have been working together all this time to get back at Fujiwara. Apparently, Hideko and Sook-Hee actually developed true feelings for each other.
One night, Sook-hee reveals Fujiwara’s plan to Hideko. In turn, the heiress informs Sook-hee about Fujiwara’s wicked plan to steal her identity and commit her to an asylum. As a result, they decided to take action against Fujiwara.
The Ending of “The Handmaiden” Explained
The ending of “The Handmaiden” shows Hideko drugging Fujiwara and reuniting with Sook-hee. Together, they hand the con artist to Kouziki, which leads to the two men’s demise. Meanwhile, Hideko and Sook-hee leave Korea and travel together on a ferry.
There are many ways to interpret “The Handmaiden” and its ending. In my opinion, “The Handmaiden” is a love story where the two female protagonists meet under unfortunate circumstances.
The meaning behind the ending of “The Handmaiden” is rather hopeful. It suggests that the protagonists’ love for each other was real, which gave them the strength to escape from their oppressors. In the end, Hideko and Sook-hee fought against their “puppet masters” and won.
What Happened in the Basement of the Handmaiden?
Many things happen in the basement of “The Handmaiden”. First, Kouziki tortures Fujiwara for trying to make a fool out of him. Then, Fujiwara lights up a cigarette, which contained a toxic substance that ends up killing them both.
Despite his dislike for the con artist, the sadistic uncle kept engaging with Fujiwara. Kouziki wanted to learn more about the “intimate details” of his wedding night with Hideko. Nonetheless, Fujiwara refuses to give the information away.
This is the moment where the con artist shows his prideful side. Although Fujiwara and Hideko were never intimate, he doesn’t want Kouziki to know that. The con artist doesn’t want to give that satisfaction to his executioner, therefore, he keeps his mouth shut.
Since Kouziki is both a sadist and a murderer, Fujiwara decided to “leave” on his own terms. As a result, the con artist lit up his last cigarette laced with mercury. By the time Kouziki noticed the toxic gas, it was already too late. Both men end up dying in the basement.
ADD TO YOUR COLLECTION
The Handmaiden (2016) [DVD]
The Handmaiden Analysis and Themes
The film “The Handmaiden” explores themes such as power, sexuality and oppression. One of the most distinguishing aspects of “The Handmaiden” is that it has really strong female characters, in particular Sook-hee.
In “The Handmaiden”, women are often victims of men. Fujiwara tried to deceive Sook-hee and steal her identity. Meanwhile, Kouziki explored Hideko for his own profit. And let’s not forget about Hideko’s aunt, Kouziki killed her because she tried to escape.
Despite the vicious cycle of manipulation and oppression, Sook-hee and Hideko fight back to regain their freedom. In order to do that, they use their smarts and the power of their female charms. In Hideko’s case, she uses her sensuality to deceive Fujiwara. Together with Sook-hee, they hand him to his executioner, Kouziki.
The Antagonists of “The Handmaiden”
The main antagonists of “The Handmaiden” are Fujiwara and Kouziki, and they “sin” in very different ways. Fujiwara’s greatest flaw is his greed, he is always scheming against people to take advantage of them. Meanwhile, Kouziki is a sadist who uses his niece to satisfy his selfish desires.
The Significance of the Octopus in “The Handmaiden”
There are many different ways to interpret the symbolism behind the octopus in “The Handmaiden”. For some, the octopus represents “imprisonment”, whereas for others it has an erotic connotation.
In Kouziki’s vast library of erotica, there is a book featuring an octopus and a human engaging in sex. Nonetheless, it’s not a very romantic scene, but rather intimidating. The octopus always seems to overpower the human in those situations with its tentacles.
“The Handmaiden” is a film that never ceases to amaze the audience because it is full of little surprises. It’s a story that perfectly combines suspense, romance, and eroticism. If I had to describe “The Handmaiden” in three words, I would say: sexy, clever, and powerful.
I believe “The Handmaiden” is one of Park Chan-wook’s finest pieces of work, a masterpiece. Nonetheless, the film can be quite polarizing. Some will hate it and some will love it, but it’s impossible to be indifferent to it.
Personally, I thought the two female leads were such a breath of fresh air. They are strong and masters of their own destiny. Some might say that Hideko and Sook-hee are femme fatales who are somewhat cunning and ruthless, but I disagree.
As I see it, Hideko and Sook-hee are survivors, they did what they needed to do. Fujiwara and Kouziki pushed the ladies over the edge, which led them to rebel against them. The women earned their well-deserved freedom.
Overall, “The Handmaiden” is visually stunning and its story is completely out of this world, in the best way possible. Even though the love scenes were somewhat intense, the director was able to shoot them in a tasteful manner. To me, they were neither exploitative nor gratuitous as they served a purpose.
PS: By the way, I just hope that Hollywood doesn’t get any ideas about making a remake of this fine work. It won’t work. In addition, the world deserves to watch more original films, not remakes.