The breakneck revenge-fueled turns in Park Chan-Wook The Handmaiden‘s astonishing plot are owed directly to their source material: Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. Although Fingersmith is set in Victorian era England and The Handmaiden is set in Korea under Japanese rule in the early 20th century, they’re both tales of class and desire mixed up with twisty, double-sided plots.
Waters crafts intriguing duplicitous characters that the audience ultimately roots for, though the observer’s sense of who to stand behind gets shaken up as the perspectives shift and new information tramples on our heart. We get to peer inside their individual desperations and understand why the main protagonists are so underhanded and crafty. They’re motivations are pragmatic attempts at survival in a savage world, but they end up actually finding something truly good in each other’s dark hearts. This melodramatic tenderness makes the cruel and, later, heroic actions they take breathtaking.
The similar plots of The Handmaiden and Fingersmith are so intricate that it’s difficult to summarize. You think you’re in for one particular story but a different point of view in the second section throws everything off balance, adding a delicious excitement to the experience. Often plots are not so scrumptious, and sometimes they are clunking hindrances to the story itself. This plot, and the way it is so lovingly presented in both the novel and the adaptation, is richly satisfying like a fatty, salty meal by a top chef that leaves you dreaming of more.
A good reason why the flinging, sensational plots of Fingersmith and The Handmaiden are so scrumptious is because Sarah Waters deeply studied the best melodramatic Victorian literature and wove the juicy inspiration from these capers into her story. “Fingersmith> is a pastiche of the whole sensation genre, a gothic melodrama like Wilkie Collins [there are clear parallels with The Woman in White] and Mary Elizabeth Braddon – fantastic novels that spiral out of control and are often quite transgressive, if only in the way they destabilise the reader,” Waters has said of the work. The biggest difference between the modern representations of this type of storytelling and the Victorian era is the ability to brashly describe sex (and show onscreen, as Park does almost excessively in The Handmaiden,) in a way that could only be hinted at. Subtlety can be powerful, but candidness can be more satisfying.
At the heart of these betrayals is the threat of being committed to a mental asylum. Part of the excitement is trying to suss out what it means to be labeled “insane” during these time periods, and the implication that being “committed” basically means losing your agency as a person and the right to a “free” life. Of course, life outside of the institution isn’t free. Everyone involved in this scheme is looking for a loophole in the system to escape the life they were born into. Even the supposedly priviledged and naive Lady Hideko is trapped in a confining life of performing pornographic readings for her uncle, whose tongue is stained black from his obsession with collecting and restoring prints of rare porn books.
To further the inky symbolism of Hideko’s uncle, he keeps an octopus in his house of mysteries. This refers to not only Hideko’s ink-stained servitude, but also to a popular genre of 19th century Japanese porn called Tentacle Erotica. The creature’s confinement also speaks to the situations from which the young women are struggling to break free.