Park Chan-wook's sensual psycho-drama, The Handmaiden, begins in the epic bowels of conflict and strife, but it's truly a cloistered affair that constricts with tentacles of intrigue and erotica as it swells and turns. Nothing is as it seems, and it holds its rapturous tease over us for nearly two and half hours sheerly on the merits of its 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 known for Oldboy (2003), the notoriously violent tale of liberation and atonement and part of Park's infamous Vengeance Trilogy, transposes Fingersmith, Sarah Waters's Victorian-era feminist novel to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. A nice effort by any standard and an extra half twist for the Seoul-based auteur diving into a period piece (Who saw that coming?). It's not the first time Park's adopted a foreign-penned work. His 2009 vampire-oriented 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 it refers to the former as it seems more congruent in context, but the reality is, it's both — and fingers in general play a large part throughout The Handmaiden. We get established quickly. Japan is in full military control of Korea and then we hone in on Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), a young Korean ingenue tending to infants whose fates are more likely dictated by matters of profit than the kindness of charity. From among the many nannies, Sookee's plucked by the dashing Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to become a handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who lives in a stately manse that would be a perfect fit in any Merchant Ivory project. As quaint and cozy as this all seems at first, we quickly learn that under the covers, nothing is all that tidy or proper; Fujiwara isn't Japanese or even a nobleman, just a shrewd opportunist trying to get ahead during tumultuous times, and Sookee, for all her nurturing wholesome innocence, has a past of using her dexterously light fingers for illicit gains.
The game at hand has Sookee intimately embedded with Hideko as part of a long-simmering plot to get the Lady to fall for her, then once on the hook, toy with her spirits, drive her mad, and commit her so that Sookee and Fujiwara can have their run of the place, gaining a privileged paradise while ironically posing as members of the enslaving Japanese.
The film unfurls in three parts, each less traditional than the previous and ever evolving toward the boundary-pushing Park we expect, including scenes that involve a writhing giant octopus, wince-worthy torture, erotic parlor games, and exquisitely framed lesbian ardor. As racy as The Handmaiden gets, it's not exploitive, but shrewdly empowering and a piquant reflection on the politics of gender that have so dominated our recent presidential race. Each woman gets her own chapter and in the third, once the bait has so tantalizingly been laid (the sweet sensual succor of a lollipop and a finger delicately lingered on another's chipped tooth), we see how the two play off each other as Fujiwara's fly in the ointment enters 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 so, calls to mind Kar-Wai Wong's spiritually haunting In the Mood for Love (2000). Park, whose one lone English endeavor, Stoker (2013), felt overstuffed and perhaps the bellwether of a downturn, has, in his return home and the melding together 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 up until then, Park proves that set-ups and sensual shakedowns among posers and the entitled elites can be a cruel, depraved horror story.