The great South Korean director Park Chan-wook possesses a rare skill for elevating broad genre trash into the realm of art.
He’s achieved this over the course of a career spanning everything from “Oldboy” (the most notable film in his Vengeance Trilogy) to the modern gothic horror picture “Stoker,” utilizing operatic flourishes including sweeping camera movements and expressive framing, set against richly designed landscapes, to make movies that gleefully skirt the thin line dividing sex and violence.
“The Handmaiden” finds Park working in familiar, eroticized terrain; the level of craft is so consistently high that it’s impossible to be anything less than entertained.
The picture, set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s, concerns con man Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) and his enlisting of low-level thief Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to pose as the maid of Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), in a bid to seduce her away from her sadistic uncle (Cho Jin-woong) and to claim her fortune.
The narrative twists inward and folds over itself through flashbacks, dueling narration and perspective shifts, but it centers on the intense sexual attraction that erupts between Sook-hee and Lady Hideko.
Often, the movie flirts with softcore territory — an extended sex scene is unquestionably one of its centerpieces — only to broaden its perspective to a violent place complete with gruesome horrors both shown and implied.
The subjugation of Korea under the Japanese colonial regime serves as a piquant metaphor for the psychosexual dramatics, and Park has a grand time crafting period visuals, but “The Handmaiden” is best understood less as a commentary on this society at large than as the sort of twisted and unconventional love story one could only expect to find from this filmmaker.