Boasting more tangled plots and bodies than an octopus has tentacles, South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” is a bodice-ripper about a pickpocket who poses as a maid to swindle a sequestered heiress. His first Korean-language fiction feature since 2009’s “Thirst,” it’s sybaritic, cruel and luridly mesmerizing.
Freely transposing Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ Victorian-set romantic thriller “Fingersmith” to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonialism, Park initially takes the tale of calculation, seduction and betrayal to heady narrative heights. Before long, however, the director of such extreme revenge thrillers as “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” and “Oldboy” slides back into his own febrile cinematic universe of eroticized torture and misogyny, rather submerging Waters’ theme of female rebellion and liberation. Not that this should impair the film’s marketing potential in any way: Commercial and arthouse audiences alike will either thrill to its stylized potboiler elements or swoon over the opiate influence of Park’s signature aesthetic beauty.
Park’s adaptation, co-written with Chung Seo-kyung, retains the novel’s triptych structure. Book One, the most faithful to the original, is narrated by Nam Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), an orphaned girl raised as a pickpocket by human trafficker Boksun. A Korean gold-digger (Ha Jung-woo), posing as Japanese count Fujiwara, plucks her from the slums to aid him in the seduction of Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress living under the stewardship of her Korean uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). Fujiwara’s plan is to elope with Hideko, marry her, then commit her to a mental asylum so he can pocket her inheritance.
As the common Sook-hee is ushered into this magnificent colonial estate, her bewildered exploration of the Gothic mise-en-scène echoes the mysterious atmospherics of Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak.” Hideko’s languorous, marble-surfaced beauty quickly dissolves under the new maid’s wide-eyed cheerfulness, and a bathing scene brims with furtive eroticism fueled by an aching tooth and a lollipop.
Park elegantly plays their innocent dressing-up and role-switching rituals against the real, pernicious deceit of Fujiwara, as newcomer Kim Tae-ri makes her gradual change of heart passionately palpable. The only defect, one that sometimes risks taking viewers out of the story, is the ensemble’s evident struggle to deliver sophisticated old-world Japanese dialogue, which somewhat hampers their spontaneity of expression.
Book Two tells the same story from Hideko’s vantage point, involving a major twist that viewers unfamiliar with the novel would be hard pressed to see coming. It’s also where the screenplay veers notably from the source, virtually writing out Boksun’s role and the secrets of the women’s birth.
What it instead chooses to highlight and expand is the young lady’s traumatic childhood upbringing by her uncle and aunt (Moon So-ri, cast strikingly against type). Inside the mansion’s voluminous library, Kouzuki’s bibliophilia is revealed to have decidedly aberrant tendencies. Dabbling in the sadomasochism of Takashi Ishii’s “Flower and Snake” series with a touch of Teruo Ishii’s grotesque “porno jidaigeki” — 1970s sexploitation costume dramas — these scenes offer their share of prurient pleasure, yet moves the narrative further away from delicate affairs of the heart.
The third and final book, which shifts focus to Fujiwara’s plight, is giddy with more revelations and reversals. It is also has Park’s signature pain fetish gratuitously splashed over it: One scene adds a new, bloody layer of meaning to the novel’s title “Fingersmith,” while another even brings back a certain signature mollusc from “Oldboy” in monstrously depraved fashion. And while there’s no denying the denouement’s cleverness or the finale’s breathtaking, lyrical evocation of sapphic desire, one comes out feeling sensually satiated.
Production values are sensational even by Korean cinema’s blue-chip standards. The mansion’s interior, designed by Ryu Seong-hee, is decorated in hybrid British-Japanese style, combinng the former’s decorative luxuriance with the latter’s elegant symmetry. In his last film, the U.S.-set “Stoker,” Park became so carried away with the set of the retro American country house that he made it the centerpiece of a flimsily constructed family mystery. Here, he is in danger again of lingering on too much visual paraphernalia — even if that matches Waters’ equally dense textual details — but involving characters and a more substantially crafted plot maintain its artistic balance.