Park Chan-wook’s sensual psychodrama “The Handmaiden” begins in the epic bowels of conflict and strife, but it’s truly a cloistered affair where nothing is as it seems, growing increasingly more constricted over its nearly two and half hours. It holds its rapturous tease over us with scrumptious visuals, artful poise and dips into kink and gore that would give the Marquis de Sade reason to smile. Most remarkable, however, is that Park, best know for the violent tale of liberation and atonement, “Oldboy” (2003), part of his infamous “Vengeance Trilogy,” transposes Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith,” a Victorian-era feminist romance, to Japan-occupied Korea in the 1930s. It’s not the first time the Seoul-based auteur has adopted foreign-penned work – his 2009 vampire tale of self-repression, “Thirst,” was in fact based on Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin.”
The term “fingersmith” refers to either a midwife or a pickpocket. Given the film’s title you might assume the former, and we start off by meeting Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), a young Korean who tends to infants whose fates are more likely dictated by matters of profit than the kindness of charity. But the reality is it’s both – and fingers in general play a large part throughout. Sook-Hee’s plucked from among the nannies by the dashing Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to become handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), who lives in a stately manse that would be a perfect fit for a Merchant-Ivory project. As quaint as this all is, we learn quickly that all is not that tidy and proper; Fujiwara isn’t Japanese, or even a nobleman – just a shrewd opportunist trying to get ahead during tumultuous times, and Sook-Hee, for all her nurturing, wholesome innocence, has a past of using her dexterously light fingers for illicit gains.
The game at hand has Sook-Hee imbedded intimately with Hideko in a long-simmering plot to get the lady to fall for her comely servant, then toy with her spirits, drive her mad and commit her so Sook-Hee and Fujiwara can have their run of the place, existing in a privileged paradise, ironically as members of the enslaving Japanese over their homeland. The film unfurls in three parts, each less traditional than the prior and ever-evolving toward the boundary-pushing Park we all know, including scenes with a writhing octopus, torture, erotic parlor games and brilliantly framed bouts of lesbian passion. Each woman gets her own chapter, and in the third, we see how the two play off each other with Fujiwara, the fly in the ointment, injected into the lusty mix.
There’s a burgeoning ripeness throughout “The Handmaiden.” The chemistry between the three leads is dank and heavy and bears such a rife and palpable sense of yearning, it quickly – and deservingly – calls to mind Kar-Wai Wong’s spiritually haunting “In the Mood for Love” (2000). Park, whose lone English endeavor “Stoker” (2013) felt overstuffed, threatening to signal the beginning of a downturn, has, in his return home and the blending of the macabre and the classical, served up a near-perfect stew of titillation, treachery and human desire. The final scene may end on a light, romantic note, but until then Park proves that set-ups and sensual shakedowns among posers and the entitled can be a cruel horror story no matter where it takes place.