The film begins in Japanese-occupied Korea, circa 1930s. Several women hold weeping infants under shelter of an awning while Japanese soldiers stomp through the rain-soaked streets. Our protagonist, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), belongs to a sort of Dickensian family of orphaned thieves, the “Fagin” of which is a man we are only introduced to under the alias of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). At the start of the film, an elaborate con to get over on an extremely wealthy family is already in development by the so-called Count and Sook-hee. Basically, the Count plans to seduce the Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), while Sook-hee poses as the Lady’s handmaiden to encourage her to fall in love with the Count. After the Count and the Lady elope, they’ll commit the heiress to an asylum and Sook-hee and the Count will flee with the loot, or something like that. It’s a bit convoluted, but more on why that’s not important later.
The character of Uncle Kouzuki represents every oppressive force in the world at this time in the character’s lives: he’s rich as fuck, for one, and like most rich fucks achieved his wealth through dishonest means; he’s a traitor to his homeland who hordes a huge collection of Japanese books and requires Japanese be the language spoken on the grounds of his estate (even Sook-hee’s alias, Tamako, is changed to the Japanese translation of the name, Okju, immediately upon her arrival); and he’s a misogynistic old bastard who’s had his niece confined to the property since the age of five, using her to perform readings of rare books at his house-held auctions.
Part Two is where shit gets dark, but this wouldn’t be a true love story without it. After the newly wed Count and Countess Hideko cash out the inheritance and have Sook-hee committed to an asylum in Hideko’s place, the narration and perspective shifts to that of Hideko’s, and we flashback to a childhood full of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her uncle, whose books, it turns out, are pornographic depictions of S&M acts that Hideko has been forced to read at her uncle’s auctions since the death of her aunt, whose sanity had dwindled after years under Kouzuki’s oppression. In these early childhood scenes, we see the seeds of rage being planted in young Hideko (portrayed briefly but brilliantly by Jo Eun-hyung), as she begins smacking the shit out of her nanny and all the handmaidens to make others feel as crazy as she does. All of a sudden, this is a princess-locked-in-a-tower story, and Uncle Kouzuki is the gross, evil dragon keeping her hostage. So when the flashbacks catch up to the Count’s ruse that the film kicked off with—this time from the perspective of Hideko’s involvement in the impending double-cross against Sook-hee—the motives are impossible to not sympathize with. Hideko wants to be free of her uncle, just as Sook-hee wishes to be free of her impoverished life of pick-pocketing and raising abandoned infants to sell to Japan (apparently that was a lucrative little hustle back then). The flashbacks continue leading all the way up to the double-cross, showing us a different vantage point of the relationship that blossoms between Hideko and Sook-hee, in which both women bare their whole truths to each other and together, devise another plot—this time for revenge, and for love.
Kelby Losack is the author of Heathenish and The Way We Came In, both from Broken River Books. He lives with his wife in Gulf Coast Texas, where he builds custom cabinets and hangs out with rappers. Follow him on Twitter @HeathenishKid