Park Chan-wook’s glorious romantic thriller “The Handmaiden” is far too good to be watched in one sitting.
A mesmerizing three-part picture about the power of sexuality to liberate and to enslave, it snakes around itself, repeating and retelling its deceptively simple story from different points of view.
It should be savored. Then watched again.
“The Handmaiden” is based on Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ 2002 taboo-crushing lesbian romance, “Fingersmith.”
In Park’s version, the setting is colonial Korea in the 1930s, when it was a vassal state to Japan.
Newcomer Kim Tae-ri stars as Sook-hee, a pickpocket who is chosen by her gang leader, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to help him execute an elaborate con to seduce, marry and rob orphaned young heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). It won’t be easy: Hideko is a virtual prisoner at the palatial estate of her uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a landowner who plans to marry her for her inheritance.
Sook-hee, who narrates the first part of the film, is to worm her way into Hideko’s affection as her maid and soften her up for the Count. But from the first moment Sook-hee sees Hideko, she’s gripped by something like love.
Soon, all three are locked in a hilarious love triangle. The more the Count paws Hideko, the more she clings to Sook-hee.
Park isn’t shy about sexuality. He portrays the budding romance between the women with great tenderness, but he’s equally frank and graphic about their sexual relationship. And he manages to retain Waters’ laser-sharp critique of economic and sexual exploitation, but as it relates specifically to the Korean situation.
Just when the Count’s plan seems to have gone off without a hitch, Park springs a shocking plot twist, and we see the story again, but through the eyes of another character. The con, it turns out, is quite different than we thought.
“The Handmaiden” has a wealth of political and psychological themes worthy of Shakespeare. Yet, despite its lavish, sprawling canvas and its 144-minute running time, it’s an economical, tightly structured, suspenseful coil of a story.
Not rated. Contains nudity and graphic sexual situations throughout, profanity, smoking, violence. 2:24. Kentucky.