The Handmaiden

THE HANDMAIDEN, drama/thriller, not rated, in Korean and Ja­panese with sub­ti­tles, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Chan-wook Park’s ab­sorb­ing erotic thriller, based on Sarah Wa­ters’ 2002 novel Finger­smith, is a dev­il­ish de­light from start to fin­ish. The set­ting is Korea in the 1930s dur­ing a pe­riod of Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion. A con man pos­ing as a Ja­panese count ( Jung-woo Ha) has a plan to ob­tain the for­tune of a Ja­panese heiress (Min-hee Kim) who lives a shel­tered ex­is­tence on her op­pres­sive un­cle’s se­cluded es­tate. The count re­cruits a petty crim­i­nal, a pick­pocket named Sookhee (Tae Ri Kim), to pose as a handmaiden to Lady Hideko and aid the count in his ef­forts to se­duce her. His plan is to marry the heiress, de­clare her in­sane, and have her locked away as he gains con­trol of her for­tune. Fate, as they say, has other plans.

Sookhee is play­ing along. In her early in­ter­nal mono­logues she ogles the heiress’ jew­elry, which the count has promised her in ex­change for her help, and says, “That’ll be mine when she goes to the mad­house.” But it’s hard not to sym­pa­thize with the in­no­cent-seem­ing Hideko — less be­cause of the count’s long con than be­cause of her dom­i­neer­ing and sadis­tic un­cle (Jin-woong Jo) — and Sookhee finds her loy­al­ties shift­ing as she’s drawn deeper into a web of in­trigue, lust, and dou­ble-crosses. Soon she’s pas­sion­ately re­spond­ing to Hideko, and in an un­ex­pected de­vel­op­ment, the story moves from the per­spec­tive of Sookhee to that of her mis­tress. As it does, the plot de­vel­op­ments also shift. In re­vis­it­ing ear­lier scenes from an­other van­tage point, notably a pas­sion­ate en­counter be­tween Hideko and Sookhee — a mas­ter­stroke for Park that should in­spire even the most jaded cineaste — the ques­tion be­comes who is con­ning whom.

Park is a vis­ual stylist who fills each frame with lush in­te­ri­ors. With a fetishis­tic at­ten­tion to ob­jects as well as peo­ple, he em­ploys sen­su­ous cam­era move­ments that, like dan­gled car­rots, draw you in. The direc­tor can even make the fil­ing down of a tooth into an erotic ex­pe­ri­ence — and he does so in The Handmaiden. As in the Park-di­rected Stoker (2013), the prac­tice of si­mul­ta­ne­ously shock­ing and tit­il­lat­ing the au­di­ence adds an el­e­ment of twisted hor­ror to a pro­duc­tion that rev­els in the slow burn and grad­ual dis­cov­ery of dark se­crets and de­sires. It builds, with some­times un­bear­able ten­sion, to its Grand Guig­nol fi­nale and an im­mensely sat­is­fy­ing de­noue­ment.

The Handmaiden isn’t per­fect. At 144 min­utes, it’s a tad over­long, which gives it just enough time to squeeze out a few too many plot twists. Still, it de­liv­ers the goods. — Michael Abatemarco

Wrapped around her fin­ger: Jung-woo Ha and Min-hee Kim

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