You have, I promise, never seen a movie quite like Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden.” It’s a period drama gone mad; a lavishly colorful, beautifully filmed erotic-revenge-crime-thriller set in 1930s Korea. Based on a contemporary novel set in Victorian England (Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”), it features a forbidden lesbian love affair, a villain whose tongue has turned black (from ink on a fountain pen), a housekeeper who seems straight out of Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” some “50 Shades”-worthy whipping, elaborately laced corsets, an octopus and a plot that whips you around like a roller coaster in the dark. Just when you think you have your bearings, whoosh – around another corner you go.
And yet, as Park told an audience at the Toronto International Film Festival (where I saw “The Handmaiden” last month), “It’s probably the warmest of my films, with the happiest ending.” Park’s works – most notably his acclaimed trilogy consisting of “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance” – are known for dark humor and brutal violence, and while there’s some bloodshed in “The Handmaiden” (notably, some bad things happening to unfortunate fingers), it’s restrained, by his standards.
Its story, at first, seems straightforward. A young Korean pickpocket named Sookee (newcomer Kim Tae-ri) plots with a con man (Ha Jung-woo) to pose as a maid for a wealthy Japanese woman, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), as a scheme to swindle her out of her inheritance. (The action takes place in Korea during the Japanese occupation of that country; both languages are used in the film, cleverly depicted in different-colored English subtitles.) Sookee soon finds herself both troubled by the strange surroundings of Hideko’s dark mansion (looking at a tree, she’s told, “My aunt’s ghost dangled from that branch”) and attracted to her lovely employer. And …
If you’ve read “Fingersmith,” you have a sense (though not entirely) of the ride you’re embarking on; if not, I’m not about to spoil it. Let me just say that there are moments in this film as visually beautiful as any this year (the cherry blossoms outside the house seem to float like snow) and that, over its nearly two-and-a-half hours, you will never be bored. As with all encounters with pickpockets, watch carefully – you don’t want to miss a thing.
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Rated: not rated; contains nudity, sexuality, violence. Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo. Director: Park Chan-wook. Running time: 144 minutes. Theater: Flicks. In Korean and Japanese, with English subtitles.