At nearly two-and-a-half-hours, Park Chan-wook‘s period pulp funhouse “The Handmaiden” is a long con but never a lengthy one. It’s more breathless than many thrillers half its running time, and twice as entertaining.
A deliciously venal unraveling — set mostly on a secluded estate choked with finery, criminal scheming and liberating sapphic love — it’s the South Korean vengeance auteur’s most playful of his genre provocations, and a huge leap after his disappointingly stilted English-language debut “Stoker.” Eschewing his usual modus operandi (larding an aura of sickening dread with virtuosic camerawork) for the rollicking tension of active kink, Park finds a percolating balance between sensuality and sin, and it might just win him admirers beyond the usual bloodthirsty fanboys.
His source material is British author Sarah Waters’s twisty 2002 novel “Fingersmith,” its seductive Victorian-era mix of class conflict and illicit romance transposed to Japan-colonized Korea in the 1930s, and it fits like a velvet glove. (Park co-wrote the screenplay with Chung Seo-Kyung.)
We first meet fresh-faced Sookee (newcomer Kim Tae-ri), daughter to a scrappy Korean family of thieves and baby traffickers, as she’s being sent off to work as handmaiden for disturbed, lonely, beautiful young Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). Kept in a grand country manor that mixes Western and Eastern design aesthetics, Hideko lives a life of silk-and-marble isolation under her Korean uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), an autocrat with an ink-stained tongue and an obsession with rare books.
But we soon learn Sookee is there for more than just dressing a wealthy recluse in jewelry and expensive clothes, and catering to her whims. Sookee’s real boss is a suave Japanese grifter who goes by The Count (Ha Jung-woo), a frequent gentleman caller to the estate who needs Sookee as a planted accomplice to convince Hideko to marry him. Afterward, he can then have his rich wife committed to an asylum and sweep up her inheritance.
But it takes only one cautiously erotic bathtub scene, involving a lollipop and Sookee attending to her mistress’s aching tooth with her finger, to realize that the required closeness for the conspiracy to work could throw an emotional wrench into the scheme. Sure enough, a flush, nurturing intimacy develops between the thawing Hideko and the smitten, sympathetic Sookee that forces the callously devious Count to speed up his plans.
And that’s just Part One. Part Two winds back the clock to tell the events from Hideko’s perspective, which deepens the bubbling, evasive loyalties in the story with background details from her past life that play like a secret, shocking diary discovered in a hidden crawlspace. These scenes whisk us into the most lurid elements of the movie’s narrative, including misogynistic abuse, the dramatic reading of pornographic material to cigar-smoking male visitors, and sadomasochistic entanglements inspired by ancient erotica. (It seems only fitting that Park, who once filmed the eating of a live octopus in “Oldboy,” would include a brief glimpse of the notorious woodcut “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.”)
Though these stylishly presented perversions and the psychological damage they wreak never go so far that you’ll want to cry uncle (pun intended), they give a certain boardgame sizzle to the labyrinthine plot that Park never misses a chance to exploit. Objects, lines of dialogue, shot choices and scenes recur like puzzle pieces that give off a different hue in the light of new information, and it all seems as if Park is trying to invent a new genre: potboiler farce. He mostly succeeds. You can swoon, laugh, or wince, or all three, and Park just keeps moving through his lush, extreme playground as if he knows you want second and third helpings. (Although when it comes to the florid, exercise-video sex, one wonders if he took a few too many notes while watching “Blue is the Warmest Color.”)
It all wouldn’t be nearly as pleasurable, though, without the exuberant performances, especially from Kim Min-hee, who reminds one of Isabelle Adjani’s pouty, complicated magnetism. Kim’s slow-burn love affair with the camera is as enrapturing as the one between Hideko and Sookee. Her co-star Kim Tae-ri returns the favor, showing remarkable flair for the many shades of infatuation (from comic to sexual). The men are mostly villainous pawns here in the story’s journey toward spiteful female rebellion, but Ha and Cho prove worthy adversaries to the awakened women’s conjoined smarts.
Only Part Three’s swerve toward punishment catharsis betrays Park’s addiction for giving certain characters their dastardly due. But like all the characters in “The Handmaiden,” for whom deception is second nature, comeuppance is Park’s calling card, while genuine emotion is merely a design element, or a clue to solving a riddle. Such distrust in feeling for its own enriching sake is unfortunate, but it doesn’t sour the many swirling ecstasies; Park is, if nothing else, a dedicated master of ceremonies to his particular appetites.