★ ★ ★ ★
Set in 1930s Korea, “The Handmaiden” is an epic story of madness, con games, double crosses, double-double crosses, kinky sex, desire and more. Director Chan-wook Park adapts Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith,” wringing every ounce of lascivious pleasure from its sprawling story of sex and intrigue.
When Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired as a handmaiden to the reclusive Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) she appears to be the perfect servant. Humble and subservient, she caters to Hideko’s every whim but all is not what it appears. Turns out Sook-hee is a shill, a thief sent to the countryside estate Hideko shares with her domineering Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) as part of a plan to steal her inheritance. Her job is to get close to her mistress and fan the flames of love between the heiress and Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a handsome swindler who plans on seducing, marrying and then committing Hideko to an insane asylum before making off with her fortune.
That’s enough story for most movies, but it’s only part of the first chapter of three that comprise the two-and-a-half-hour film.
Chan-wook Park’s films have never shied away from lurid, sensational imagery, and “The Handmaiden” is no different. Unapologetically erotic and convoluted, the film revels in its ridiculousness, luxuriating in every plot twist and turn. Told from multiple points of view with an ever-changing character dynamic, it demands your attention.
What begins as a con game ends as a (SPOILER ALERT) a triumph of undervalued women who use the manipulation of the men in their lives as a weapon. It’s a complicated revenge story, ripe with detail and secrets. As vaguely trashy art house cinema goes, however, it doesn’t get much more enjoyably escapist than “The Handmaiden.”