This article is an explanation to help understand the plot and ending of the film Ah-ga-ssi / The Handmaiden. This is a Korean film that was released in 2016. Brought to you by director Chan-wook Park, who gave us Oldboy, The Handmaiden is a well paced psych thriller. The cast includes Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri (her first film), Ha Jung-woo and Cho Jin-woong. The plot is pretty mean and we get to see multiple perspectives of the story as it unfolds. Here’s the film The Handmaiden explained, spoilers ahead.
Setting The Context
The main characters are:
Lady Izumi Hideko (Min-hee) – Japanese Heiress
Sook-hee/Tamako (Tae-ri) – The Handmaiden
Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo ) – Con Artist
Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong) – Izumi’s Uncle
The movie initially starts off with a poor girl, Tamako, appearing to give hand over her child and head over to this giant mansion to make her living as a handmaiden. Tamako is to be the handmaiden of a Japanese heiress, Izumi. The story is set in Korea during the Japanese occupancy. The owner of the mansion is the evil Uncle Kouzuki who intends to marry Izumi and inherit her wealth.
It is quickly revealed that things are not as they appear. Tamako is actually Sook-hee, who is an orphan raised by a Miss Boksun – a top purveyor of stolen goods. She’s grown up learning pickpocketing and forging stamps. There are other such orphan girls who have been raised by Miss Boksun. This group of con artists get abandoned new babies, feed them and sell them to Japan. So, going back to that first scene, that is not Tamako handing over her baby. It’s another orphaned newborn being raised to be sold to Japan. Count Fujiwara, a con man, approaches this group and talks about his scheme. He has identified a certain single Japanese heiress (Izumi) who he wants to marry to inherit her fortune. Fujiwara is originally a Korean but wants to turn fully Japanese. By marrying the daughter of a noble, he can adopt the family name of Kouzuki. He hires Sook-hee to play a handmaiden by the name Tamako. He will need the help of this handmaiden to be his ears. Sook-hee is also to gently persuade Izumi to fall in love with Count Fujiwara. Sook-hee agrees for a sum of money from the inheritance. After Fujiwara gets the inheritance, he plans on declaring Izumi insane and send her off to a mental asylum.
The films story is laid down to us from three perspectives.
Plot Explanation – Quick version
The first part is what the filmmaker wants us to think : Sook-Hee and Fujiwara are in on it and are tricking Izumi. But it ends with Sook-hee being tricked and sent to the asylum.
The second part is what Fujiwara is plotting : Izumi and Fujiwara are in on it and plan to trick Sook-hee and send her to the asylum but eventually Izumi and Sook-hee get on the same side and join … hands.
The third part is what is actually going on : This gives us the whole plot in its totality. While initially Sook-hee and Izumi are pegged against each other, they get on the same side and take out Fujiwara and Uncle Kouzuki.
Let’s go through this plot linearly.
Plot Explanation – Detailed Version
When Izumi was young, her aunt read erotic books to collectors. Uncle Kouzuki dealt in rare erotic art and text and had the aunt read them out. Many of these were mere replicas. The aunt is unable to handle all the abuse and commits suicide by hanging from a tree in the courtyard. Uncle Kouzuki tells young Izumi that he has murdered the aunt because she tried to run away. That’s what he tells her in the basement. Izumi takes over the erotic art reading when she grows older. Izumi is abused for many years. During her recital sessions there are a few visual depictions that she performs too (eg: that strange scene with the wooden puppet). Uncle Kouzuki plans on marrying Izumi and take on her fortune.
Fujiwara comes over to the mansion as an art forger for Uncle Kouzuki. He intends to get rich. He realizes that Izumi is not naive and is stone hearted. There would be no way to get her to fall in love with him. He reaches out to Izumi and tells her that he has a plan to get her away from this abusive life of hers. He tells her his plan of locating a naive girl who will come in as a handmaiden. Once they get married, Izumi will switch identities with the handmaiden and they would send the handmaiden to a mental asylum. This would grant Izumi her freedom (at the cost of the handmaiden’s life) and make Fujiwara rich. Izumi agrees.
Sook-hee arrives at the mansion playing the role of Tamako, the handmaiden. Izumi is awaiting Sook-hee’s arrival and is spying on her. Sook-hee, on her first night at the mansion, hears Izumi moan in her sleep. Izumi is acting. When she wakes Izumi up, Izumi tells handmaiden about her aunt who hung herself from a cherry tree outside. The next day, Sook-hee hands Izumi her reference letter. Sook-hee cannot read. The letter is actually from Fujiwara. While Fujiwara tells Sook-hee that this would be a reference letter, it is a note to Izumi that she should show all her clothes and jewelry (material stuff) to Sook-hee to make her more gullible. Fujiwara instructs Izumi to act naive but hesitate to fall in love with him. This would ensure that Sook-hee is kept busy with her task of playing cupid.
Slowly, Sook-hee and Izumi get close. They share a short intimate moment when she is giving Izumi a bath. This is however instrumented by Izumi. Fujiwara comes over to the mansion and is going to teach art to Izumi. Sook-hee and Fujiwara meet in private to discuss if everything is going according to plan. She tells him how naive Izumi is and the plan is to keep convincing Izumi that she’s falling in love with Fujiwara. At this point Sook-hee doesn’t know that she’s being played for a fool.
Here’s the thing. Unfortunately for Fujiwara, Izumi and Sook-hee get too close. They get attracted to each other. They end up making passionate love one night. Now, Sook-hee feels love for Izumi and doesn’t want to go through with the plan. Izumi feels the same way about Sook-hee but when Izumi meets Fujiwara, he tells her that Sook-hee is doing this for the sake of money. Fujiwara and Izumi fake a moment of love in front of Sook-hee. Later at night Izumi tells Sook-hee that she doesn’t feel love for Fujiwara and doesn’t want to get married to him. Izumi hopes that Sook-hee would disclose her love for Izumi. But instead, Sook-hee insists that Izumi should get married to Fujiwara. Izumi slaps Sook-hee in disappointment and heads to hang herself from the tree where her aunt died. Sook-hee stops her and confesses to playing her part in a plan that involved sending Izumi to asylum. She also admits to have fallen in love with Izumi and can no longer go through with the plan. Izumi also admits to Sook-hee about being part of a plan that involved sending Sook-hee to asylum. Both of them confess their love for each other. They also now know that each of them were fitted in a plan that lead the other to the asylum. The two of them decide to take down Fujiwara and Uncle Kouzuki. They start by destroying all of the erotic art collection.
The duo play along with Fujiwara’s plan. Uncle Kouzuki goes out on a trip for a week. He does suspect something and hence warns Izumi that if she runs away, he will kill her like her aunt. Izumi and Fujiwara elope and get married, Sook-hee is also with them. Fujiwara gives Izumi a vile which has highly concentrated opium. He tells her “Three drops will make you sleep all day. Five drops will knock down a horse. If you crave death within five minutes, drink it all. If you carry this, he can never take you to the basement. At least not alive. It’ll be my wedding gift to you. It’s more expensive than jewels”. Izumi and Fujiwara spend the night but don’t have sex. Izumi cuts her hand and drops blood on the sheets as indicative of sex. They cash out Izumi’s inheritance. After this, they head to the asylum. At this point, Sook-hee only acts surprised and creates a scene. Izumi is playing her part too. But Sook-hee has with her a pair of earrings that Izumi calls a gift. The asylum takes Sook-hee in by force.
Izumi and Fujiwara head out for dinner. Fujiwara says that Sook-hee would soon die in the asylum and if Izumi would be interested in getting married to him for real. Meanwhile, Sook-hee escapes the asylum. She uses the earring to pick her lock. In the confusion of a fire she escapes. Izumi seduces Fujiwara and drugs his wine with the opium. He’s knocked out. Izumi leaves and meets with Sook-hee. The two of them decide to use false identities and beat town. Meanwhile, Uncle Kouzuki returns and finds out that Fujiwara has eloped with his “piggy bank”. He sends out a search party for both Izumi and Fujiwara. His henchmen find Fujiwara knocked out at the room. They take him to Uncle Kouzuki. Izumi and Sook-hee flee town. As revenge, Uncle Kouzuki begins torturing Fujiwara by chopping off his fingers. Fujiwara is a man with an insurance policy. Just like the opium drops he gives Izumi, he has three green coloured cigarettes in his case. These are poisoned with mercury. Fujiwara tricks Uncle Kouzuki into letting him smoke those. The cellar doesn’t have any windows. Gaseous mercury poisons them both and they die. The film ends with Izumi and Sook-hee making love to each other in their new found freedom. Jingle Jingle. Sigh.