It is 1930s Korea. The film begins with Sook-Hee preparing to move away from her home and move into the estate of a Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko. We are told this is “PART ONE.” Sook-Hee is taken on a long ride until she reaches the large estate in the countryside. A woman greets her and gives her a tour of the grounds including an annex which has been furnished into a library. Sook-Hee is told that she won’t sleep in the servants’ quarters but near the Lady of the house as she is her handmaiden. She calls Sook-Hee “Tamako” and tells her that the lady is often tasked with reading for the master (her uncle) and that he loves books. Sook-Hee is then showed her room which is just across from the Lady’s bedroom. When left alone, Sook-Hee tries to peek into the room but a loud noise scares her back to her tiny cot.
Later in the night, Sook-Hee awakens to hear the Lady Hideko screaming. She rushes into her bedroom and comforts her. Hideko says she had had a nightmare and tells Sook-Hee that her aunt had hung herself from the big cherry tree and on moonless nights, her aunt’s ghost dangles from the branch. Sook-Hee proves to be a good handmaiden as she comforts the Lady by feeding her sake and singing to her.
Sook-Hee tells us (through voiceover) that we think she is a Korean handmaiden named Tamako but she’s really Sook-Hee, a pickpocket raised by a woman who teaches children how to steal and commit forgeries. In a flashback, we see the house takes in abandoned newborns and sells them to Japan. A man enters the house of thieves and tells them about an interpreter who bribed his way into a translating job for the high officials. He helps Japan annex Korea and then gets naturalized so he can marry the daughter of a Japanese noble. He builds a mansion, filled with books, and invites Japanese collectors to his library to hold readings of rare books and auction them off. Some of the books, he needs to sell but doesn’t want to lose possession so he hired this man (telling the story) to create forgeries he has convinced the nobles he is Count Fujiwara from Japan. The collector’s wife died with no children and her sister has died but his wife’s niece is still alive and employed to perform book readings for her uncle. Now an orphan, this woman is rich she has 1.5 million in cash and 300,000 in bonds -- and the man who calls himself Count Fujiwara plans to make her fall in love with him and after marrying her, he’ll declare her insane and have her locked up in a madhouse thus inheriting her fortune. He wants Sook-Hee to work as her handmaiden so she can persuade her to fall in love. Her uncle also wants to marry her for her money but if Sook-Hee can convince her to marry the Count, he’ll give her 50,000 and the dresses and jewelry. Sook-Hee demands 100,000.
Sook-Hee goes to the estate to meet with the staff, to convince them to hire her. The women who work on staff steal her shoes as a prank which angers her because it will make her look bad. She is amazed to see how beautiful Lady Hideko is. Sook-Hee gives her a reference letter from the last woman she worked for but in reality, it’s a forgery by the man who is pretending to be Count Fujiwara. He has written it in Japanese, which Sook-Hee can’t read or write. He has told Sook-Hee what the letter says “A maid is like a pair of chopsticks. Her presence is little noted, but her absence causes much distress.” Lady Hideko claims she has a headache from all the reading she has had to do for her uncle and asks Sook-Hee to read it. Sook-Hee struggles to do so from memory, claiming it says she’s like a “spoon” and then finally admits she is illiterate and can’t even read in Korean. Lady Hideko said she doesn’t care if Sook-Hee curses or steals but she doesn’t ever want to be lied to. She shows Sook-Hee a picture of her mother and asks if she is as beautiful. Sook-Hee tells her that she has heard the Count say he dreams of her face in bed, her first attempt at planting a seed of a relationship.
Lady Hideko gives Sook-Hee some shoes and then leaves to go to reading practice, which she’ll do alone. Sook-Hee goes through all the dresses to see what clothes she’ll inherit after the woman is locked up. She finds Ben Wa balls. After trying on hats, she finds a rope in a hatbox, the kind you’d hang yourself with. Sook-Hee goes outside and looks up at the cherry tree the Lady’s aunt was said to have hung herself from.
Sook-Hee finds Lady Hideko reading in the library with her uncle. She tries to approach but is told not to go past the snake. A gate is rolled closed, locking her out. She notices a statue of a snake on the ground, creating a boundary of limitations which she isn’t allowed to cross.
Back in her room, Sook-Hee bathes Lady Hideko, giving her a lollipop which she says she used on children to help them associate bath time with sweetness. Lady Hideko complains one of her teeth is sharp. Sook-Hee grabs a thimble and begins shaving it down. The two exchange sexual energy while this is going on. Sook-Hee admires Lady Hideko’s naked breasts.
Count Fujiwara arrives at the estate to help with forgeries and requests the Lady’s handmaiden to run an errand for him. Sook-Hee and the Count discuss their plan in private. Sook-Hee tells him the Lady is naïve and won’t take the hint that he wants sex, even if he pulls on her nipples. Count Fujiwara says Sook-Hee has to put it into her head that the Lady is much happier since he arrived. He also gives her a gift to send along. Sook-Hee presents the gift sapphire earrings. Sook-Hee is excited that they’ll be hers when the Lady is sent away to the madhouse. She also convinces Lady Hideko that the earrings are actually spinel.
Lady Hideko arranges for Sook-Hee to be dressed up which is a new experience for Sook-Hee. Lady Hideko finishes off the look with the sapphire earrings. They button each other’s dresses up which is depicted in a very sexual way with Sook-Hee openly longing to touch her. Sook-Hee asks if Lady Hideko is planning to marry her uncle. Hideko points out that’s what he raised her for, knowing he’d need access to her money one day. Eventually he will put his entire library up for auction because he can’t afford any more books.
The Count paints with Lady Hideko, trying to be flirtatious. Sook-Hee watches, feeling sorry for Lady Hideko for being duped. He tells Sook-Hee a peach is ripe which is the signal for her to start convincing the Lady that she’s falling in love with the Count. After he leaves, Sook-Hee claims the Lady’s cheeks have grown flushed since he arrived but the Lady isn’t really convinced.
Lady Hideko and Sook-Hee have a personal conversation on the grounds, about how the Lady’s mother died in childbirth and it’s like she strangled her as punishment for being born. Sook-Hee takes this to heart and tells her no baby is guilty of being born and that her mother would probably have been very happy to have given life to her. This surprises and touches the Lady. The Count arrives and steals the Lady away, sending Sook-Hee to run errands so they can be alone. Not wanting to leave Lady Hideko with the Count, Sook-Hee rushes to grab things but when she returns, she sees the clothed Lady mounting the clothed Count, which makes her terribly jealous.
Now Sook-Hee harbors anger at Lady Hideko. At night, the servant’s bell is rang and Sook-Hee is called into the Lady’s bedroom. She asks Sook-Hee why she didn’t greet her when she got back from her reading. Sook-Hee is obviously still bitter that Lady Hideko is falling for the Count but claims she simply fell asleep. The Lady says she can feel a nightmare coming on and suggests Sook-Hee sleep in bed with her. After a while, she tells Sook-Hee that the count asked to elope with her when her uncle leaves to visit his gold mine. The Lady says without a mother, she’s never been told what men want. Sook-Hee teaches her how to kiss by demonstrating on her. Then she begins to make love to her under the context of showing her what it will be like when she makes love to the Count. The two women end up having sex, both claiming it is simply an instruction although they both seem to be in love with the other.
The next time the Count is painting with Lady Hideko, he orders Sook-Hee to find another job to do. Sook-Hee follows suit but then stops short, saying she has no other job except to look after the Lady. Outside the grounds, the Count yells at Sook-Hee for not helping him with his plan. He puts Sook-Hee’s hands on his crotch and tells her to feel how much he wants her fortune and tells her he’s not going to let her fuck it up. Sook-Hee threatens to tell her that he’s just a pickpocket but he threatens, in return, to tell her that Sook-Hee is a Korean farmhand and shaman. Sook-Hee can’t return home empty-handed, not providing for all the people who have taken her in since she was a little girl. Sook-Hee responds by saying Lady Hideko has no one on earth and if he frightens her, she’ll close up like a clam. She adds not to ever put her hand on his tiny joke of a cock again.
Now Sook-Hee follows the plan accordingly, telling Lady Hideko that she (the Lady) is falling for the Count. But the Lady says she’s fallen in love with somebody else. Nonetheless, Lady Hideko agrees to marry the Count if Sook-Hee can go with them to Japan. The Count leaves the estate to visit his mine while the Count pretends to leave but secretly hides so he can sneak off with Lady Hideko. As soon as her uncle is gone, Hideko leaves with the Count and Sook-Hee on a ferry to Japan. Once there, Hideko and the Count are married. The next morning, Sook-Hee stops by their room and finds blood on Hideko’s sheets, alluding to having lost her virginity. The Count watches the two women together. When he’s not looking, Sook-Hee kisses Hideko.
By the end of the week, Count Fujiwara is missing, claiming that he has gone to certify the marriage and convert the inheritance into cash. When he returns, Sook-Hee yells at him for taking her virginity and then leaving her alone. She tells him to hurry up and throw Hideko in the madhouse. Two men arrive at the hotel and ask Sook-Hee what treatment she would suggest for Hideko. Sook-Hee says she wants her confined to a place where no one can harm her and she can do no harm. The group travels into town, stopping at a mental hospital. Sook-Hee waits with the employees as they tell the Countess they are going to look after her but then they end up grabbing Sook-Hee and taking her into the madhouse. She claims she is not the Countess and they have the wrong woman. The Count and Hideko do nothing to defend Sook-Hee as she struggles.
“PART TWO.” We now learn about the back story of Lady Hideko. As a little girl, she has to put medal balls in her mouth (reminiscent of Ben Wa balls) while she is hit repeatedly by her aunt for “talking back.” She is then brought into her room where she’s told there is an ogre who lives outside her room who will burst in and smother her if she ever cries out. The aunt also shares the photo of Hideko’s mother that we had seen her show to Sook-Hee.
Hideko’s aunt instructs her in Japanese by reading books which end up being graphic and teaching her words like “penis” and “vagina.” Her uncle comes by and grabs both of their faces, suffocating them before letting them go. We now see the young Hideko slapping a servant for saying bad things about her in Korean, which she can speak. Her uncle tells her that she has a touch of lunacy that she got from her mother and he will try to teach her so she doesn’t get sent to a mental hospital. The training consists of her being taught to read from his book collection which is now revealed to be very explicitly sexual books. The young Hideko reads from a graphic story and her uncle yells at her lack of articulation. We then see the adult Lady Hideko at the readings for collectors, reading from sexually explicit passages.
She flashes back to the day of her aunt’s hanging and the servants staring up at her. Meanwhile, the readings continue for the Japanese book collectors and the stories are more and more graphic. She also performs demonstrations of the material for the audience she chokes herself; she is whipped; she sits on a wooden puppet and is lifted to the ceiling. The books are auctioned off. One has lost its value because the sexually explicit illustration has been ripped out. Nobody wants to buy the book, figuring that the illustration was necessary to depict what words alone could not.
The man who pretends to be Count Fujiwara is involved in these readings, hired for forgeries. He tells Hideko’s uncle how all the women on the estate are attracted to him except for one Hideko. He heard that her uncle is engaged to her and suggests to him to go easy on her “training” or she’ll be dead inside.
Count Fujiwara and Lady Hideko talk over dinner. He tries to tell her he loves her but she knows he’s lying. He admits to being the son of a Korean farmhand and he spent three years learning to paint forgeries so he would have access to her and possess her father’s inheritance. But he realized how smart she was after he met her and has another deal to suggest he’ll rescue her from her uncle, they’ll split the money. She says she doesn’t want to marry anyone. He realizes she plans to kill herself but he says all her money would go to a perverted uncle. She points out that he will find them if they eloped and take her to the basement where he tortures people he has brought her there as a young girl and showed her what he did to her aunt. Count Fujiwara gives her highly concentrated opium and says if she’s ever caught, three drops will make her sleep, five drops will knock her out, and all of it will kill her.
They plan to find a handmaiden for her who they will send to a madhouse under Hideko’s name. They get rid of her old one after she is caught having sex with the Count. We now see Sook-Hee’s arrival from Hideko’s perspective. When Sook-Hee tries to peek in her room, she bangs against the wall, scaring her. She watches Sook-Hee undress for bed. Then she screams to get Sook-Hee to come, claiming she had a nightmare. Hideko reads a letter from Count Fujiwara telling her to show Sook-Hee her clothes at every opportunity since that is part of what she will receive for helping him out (if she wasn’t being duped). He points out she won’t be able to read the letter she’s reading because she’s illiterate. Hence her asking Sook-Hee to read the recommendation out loud she knew she couldn’t read it. Hideko also goes outside and scolds her servants for stealing Sook-Hee’s shoe, saying if she runs away, she’ll throw them out. In the next flashback, we see Sook-Hee bathing Hideko and fixing her tooth… but now we see this was followed by Hideko inviting Sook-Hee to join her in the tub.
When Sook-Hee presents the earrings to Hideko, Count Fujiwara wrote her a letter warning her that Sook-Hee would pretend they were fake because she wants them but they’re actually Hideko’s own earrings. He tells her, to keep her from getting suspicious, they should occupy Sook-Hee with the task of trying to convince Hideko to marry him and that she shouldn’t fall in love with him too easily. As before, Hideko gives Sook-Hee the earrings and admires her when she is dressed up. Also as before, Sook-Hee is very kind towards Hideko when she discusses losing her mother in childbirth, leading Hideko to feel a companionship towards Sook-Hee.
Count Fujiwara and Hideko really don’t like each other and both only tolerate the other to go along with their plan. Sook-Hee now mopes around, angry, watching a flirtatious exchange between Hideko and the Count; now we hear them openly discussing their dislike for each other. Sook-Hee becomes jealous which Hideko notices. As before, when she is away running errands, Sook-Hee rushes back to find a clothed Hideko mounting Count Fujiwara on the grounds. Now we see that they staged that pose just to convince her they were falling in love.
We see Hideko giving the readings of sexual literature to the Japanese men. She reads about Ben Wa balls. The men applaud. Then we see the scene where Hideko and Sook-Hee have sex, under the pretext of educating Hideko on how to please a man. But now the sex scene is extended and more graphic.
Count Fujiwara yells at Lady Hideko, telling her if she scares Sook-Hee, she’ll close up like a clam. The Lady feels bad about arranging to have Sook-Hee locked up in a madhouse but he tells her that Sook-Hee said Lady Hideko was so dense, she wouldn’t know someone wanted sex even if they pulled on her nipples. While it is true Sook-Hee said this early on, it was when she was not fully invested in Lady Hideko’s companionship and trying hard to go along with the plan despite her developed attachment. However, it is enough to upset Lady Hideko who is now convinced Sook-Hee doesn’t really have feelings for her. In her room, Hideko asks Sook-Hee if she still thinks she should marry the Count, even if she (the Lady) ends up having feelings for someone else. When Sook-Hee says ‘yes,’ Hideko slaps her and shoves her out of her room. Then she grabs the rope that Sook-Hee found in the hatbox earlier and goes to hang herself from the same tree her aunt had, saying she wishes she’d never been born. (We’re meant to believe this is why she allows Sook-Hee to be sent to a madhouse despite falling in love with her).
But when hanging from the tree, before she can fall, Sook-Hee appears, holding Hideko by the legs. She immediately confesses to everything, how she was trying to trick her into marrying the Count and they were going to send her to the madhouse. Hideko asks, “Sook-Hee, are you worried about me?” and Sook-Hee asks how she knows her name since she’s pretended to be a handmaiden named Tamako. Hideko confesses her plan to send Sook-Hee to the madhouse. Now Sook-Hee writes home and tells the woman who raised her to be a thief there is a change of plans and they need her help with a forgery.
Hideko’s uncle drives away to visit his gold mines. He warns Lady Hideko about the basement, meaning if she ever betrays him, he will punish her with torture like he has done to family members before. With him gone, Sook-Hee is finally able to explore the library. She sees the uncle’s collection is all perversely sexual literature. Offended that Hideko had been forced to read it, she tears pages and illustrations out of all the books and then dumps them in the indoor ponds underneath the floorboards.
The two women are finally free, preparing for Hideko to elope, and we see them running through the fields, laughing. Cut to Sook-Hee being put in the madhouse. Instead of sadness, Hideko is seemingly unaffected and says she’s hungry.
“PART THREE.” Hideko and Count Fujiwara dine at a nice restaurant, their plan having worked. Meanwhile, Sook-Hee laughs hysterically while eating dinner at the mental hospital. At a photography studio, Count Fujiwara explains that they’ll replace Sook-Hee’s photo on her ID with Hideko’s so she can take on her identity and “Hideko” can be declared in a mental institution, allowing them to recoup her inheritance without being caught by her uncle. The Count confesses he might actually like Hideko and suggests they get married again, now that she’s stolen Sook-Hee’s identity. She inquires whether he feels remorse about having locked Sook-Hee in a madhouse alone but he says she’s naïve and deserves her fate.
In the madhouse, a fire is set allowing Sook-Hee to escape.
Back at a hotel, Hideko dips the opium the Count gave her into a wine glass. They kiss and he decides he wants to have sex. She drinks from her wine glass, hoping he’ll follow suit, but he doesn’t. She lets him kiss her breasts and then they kiss but he still doesn’t drink the wine. Finally she drinks from his glass and kisses him, transferring wine from her mouth to his. He then gets really aggressive towards her sexually, citing the books she read out loud that declares women like being taken forcefully. But before he can harm her, he passes out from the opium in the wine.
When wakes up, he is being taken by two thugs somewhere into town.
Now Sook-Hee and Hideko have reunited. Sook-Hee has taken a picture of herself dressed as a man and uses her forgery skills to replace the photo in Count Fujiwara’s ID, taking over his identity. Hideko sends a letter to her uncle, telling him that the Japanese Count who he had been trying to impress for years is actually the son of a Korean farmhand and she drops him off with her uncle as a “gift.” She also tells him to tell the Count that, outside of books, no woman likes to be taken by force. Now that he knows he’s been betrayed, the uncle takes the man who pretended to be Count Fujiwara to his basement and tortures him, cutting off his fingers with a paper trimmer. The Count asks for a cigarette.
The two women go to the train station. The uncle’s goons are there, checking for any women traveling together who are trying to leave town. The women go undetected in two ways they buy a ticket to a nearby city and then change it to Shanghai, paying the difference; and Sook-Hee is currently disguised as a man so they aren’t seen as two women.
In a flashback, we see that the Count didn’t really take Hideko’s virginity. She broke her own hymen with a butter knife, resulting in the blood Sook-Hee saw the next morning. In present day, Hideko’s uncle asks about all the details about his niece’s wedding night, exposing that he had a perverted fascination with his young niece and wasn’t simply after her money. He asks graphic questions about whether he touched her breasts or her “cunt.” Whether her vagina had many wrinkles and the look of her vaginal secretion. He admits he’s just an old man who likes dirty stories. The Count ignores him, asking for a cigarette to help his memory, which Hideko’s uncle grabs from the Count’s clothes and he smokes.
The two women have made it to the ferry. Sook-Hee gets rid of her mustache now that they’re safely en route to Shanghai. Hideko’s uncle cuts off the Count’s underwear as he lays bleeding from losing his fingers. Before the torture can continue, the Count says that the cigarettes were filled with mercury and they both are now poisoned from the smoke. The uncle dies. The Count inhales the air in an effort to kill himself.
Sook-Hee and Hideko go into their new home where they kiss and have a long sexual experience, affectionate and in love. They put the Ben Wa balls in their mouths and then inside each other’s vaginas.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Sook-Hee is a pickpocket who is asked by a thief to pose as a handmaiden, in an effort to convince Lady Hideko, a wealthy woman, to fall in love with him. He will then marry her and send her to a madhouse so he can receive all of her inheritance. He has met the woman while creating forgeries for her book-collecting uncle, convincing the man that he is a Japanese count.
The plan goes awry when Sook-Hee falls in love with the lady. Eventually Sook-Hee reveals the scheme and learns that she was actually hired as a decoy so she could be locked up in the madhouse, allowing Hideko to take on her identity and live freely with her own inheritance after it’s transferred to the Count. But after falling in love with each other, the women double-cross the Count, sending him to the woman’s perverted uncle to be tortured. Sook-Hee escapes the madhouse and uses the man’s identity to escape by dressing up as a man and using his ID. Both women now live as lovers.
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