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 slowly. Then watched again.
The Handmaiden is based on Welsh novelist Sarah Waters' 2002 taboo-crushing lesbian romance, Fingersmith, which already has yielded a successful BBC miniseries.
In Park's version, the setting moves from Victorian England to colonial Korea in the 1930s, when it was a vassal state to Japan.
Newcomer Kim Tae-ri stars as Sook-hee, a young Korean pickpocket who is chosen by her gang leader, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo of Never Forget and The Chaser), to help him execute an elaborate long-term con to seduce, marry, and rob orphaned young heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee, No Tears for the Dead). It won't be an easy task: Hideko is a virtual prisoner at the palatial estate of her uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a Korean 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 personal maid and soften her up for the Count.
From the first moment Sook-hee sees Hideko, she's gripped by something like love. ("What do thieves know about love?" the young confidence trickster says.)
Soon, the Count, Hideko, and Sook-hee are locked in a hilarious love triangle right out of contemporary romcoms. 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.
Park gained an international following a dozen years ago with his mind-bending, violent Vengeance trilogy – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. He's far more restrained here, deploying a classical visual style and a lyrical, almost languid rhythm that feels luxurious, hypnotic.
The Handmaiden has a wealth of political and psychological themes that are worthy of Shakespeare. Yet, despite its lavish, sprawling canvas and its 144-minute running time (the extended edition is 167 minutes), it's an economical, tightly structured, suspenseful coil of a story. It never fails to feel fresh, alive, and surprising.
3.5 (Out of four stars)