Tense, lush, erotic, and unsettling, South Korean psychological thriller “The Handmaiden” is pure cinema. There’s a palpable exhilaration that comes from watching this latest film from Park Chan-wook, the director known best for his twisty, violent, unforgettable “Vengeance Trilogy” (highlighted by “Oldboy,” later remade by Spike Lee).
The elements that made “Oldboy” so luridly intoxicating are on display and ratcheted up in “The Handmaiden.” But more than a complex thriller, it’s a wildly emotional love story, and an unexpectedly moving examination of a fascinating time period: 1930s Korea, then occupied by Japan.
Interestingly, “The Handmaiden” is based on a 2002 novel (“Fingersmith,” by Sarah Waters) set in Victorian England. Transposing the novel to a different setting makes for an altogether more unique visual and sensory experience. There are echoes of Gothic romance and even noir in Park’s film, which opens in a grim, noisy world of poverty.
Here, a young girl named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) says goodbye to her family, enters a waiting car, and embarks on a long journey. She will serve as the new handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a somber heiress who has spent her entire life under the watchful eye of her cruel uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). A black-tongued, deliriously lustful collector of antique erotica, he has groomed his niece to eventually become his wife.
Into this strange household arrives Sook-Hee, or, as she is known there, Tamako. We quickly discover that the arrival of this new handmaiden is but one step in a larger, more elaborate plan.
Sook-Hee was born to a con-artist mother who was later hanged, and she and her other family members still make a living through deception. This is also true of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), the Korean son of a fisherman who is pretending to be a Japanese count.
His plan? To seduce Lady Hideko, take her away from her uncle, marry her, have her locked in an insane asylum, and enjoy her fortune. He installs Sook-Hee as handmaiden to help advance his cause with Lady Hideko, a sheltered, inexperienced girl ripe for seduction. Or so it seems.
Sook-Hee and Lady Hideko soon develop a bond, which makes the former’s role in the plan infinitely more difficult. Eventually, the connection becomes something far, far deeper, leading to a moving and witty lovemaking scene that might have earned the unrated film an NC-17 rating.
Eventually, a deliciously conceived twist upends “The Handmaiden,” and we see many of the preceding moments from a different perspective. The final hour or so of this long (nearly two and a half hours) film features moment after moment of surprise. The feeling that results can only be described as delightful.
While the twists and turns of the script are vital to the success of “The Handmaiden,” other elements are just as crucial. The four lead performances — Kim Min-hee’s Lady Hideko, Kim Tae-ri’s Sook-hee, Ha Jung-woo’s Count Fujiwara, and Cho Jin-woong’s Uncle Kouzuki — are note perfect, especially Kim Min-hee’s star-making turn as the mysterious Hideko.
The visual splendor of “The Handmaiden” is not unexpected for lovers of Park’s work, especially 2013’s American-set “Stoker,” starring Nicole Kidman. The cinematography of Chung Chung-hoon will take your breath away, as will the feverish, haunting score by Cho Young-wuk. It’s hard to imagine a 2016 film with a better look, feel, and sound.
Quite frankly, it’s also difficult to imagine one more gleefully perverse. In the character of Uncle Kouzuki we have a villain for the ages, a grotesque monster who forces Hideko to read erotic passages to a roomful of lecherous guests. His threats of “the basement” are haunting, even more so after we see what’s actually down there.
And yet above all, what most resonates is the romance. It would be a spoiler to spell out exactly who falls for who, since even after the first twist, it’s not entirely clear. By the end of “The Handmaiden,” however, it’s clear Park Chan-wook has crafted a tender, moving, utterly believable love story. It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece.
4 stars (Out of four)
Title: “The Handmaiden”
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
Director: Park Chan-wook
Running time: 145 minutes
Rating: Not rated, but contains explicit sex, nudity, language, and violence; equivalent to R or NC-17
The Lowdown: A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her.