Most of the action in The Handmaiden takes place in an outlandish cross-cultural setting. Located in the Korean countryside, it's a towering Gothic pile of red brick and stained glass attached to a low Japanese wing of weathered wood and paper screens. The mansion of a Europhile family now trying to pass as Japanese in occupied Korea, the house's audacious mix can serve as a metaphor both for Park Chan-wook's luscious period thriller and for its impudent characters: In art as in con artistry, go big or go home.
The South Korean director (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) and his co-writer Chung Seo-Kyung draw their twisting plot from Sarah Waters's novel Fingersmith, about a young pickpocket who impersonates a servant girl in an attempt to con an heiress kept captive by her perverted uncle. Waters's book, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2002, is set in 19th-century England and nestles a lesbian love interest inside tropes borrowed from both Charles Dickens and the Gothic novel to playfully expose the sexual repression hidden at the core of Victorian literature. By moving the action to Korea in the 1930s, during the period of the Japanese annexation, Park gives that story a political twist, implying that its theme of feminist revenge against abusive men can be extended to one of nationalist revenge against a colonial power – and broadening its ideas about being true to one's identity.
Here, Kim Tae-Ri plays Soo-Kee, the street-smart orphan catapulted into this weird mansion by the fraudulent "Count Fujiwara" (Ha Jung-Woo). Her job is to help the con man make his fortune by marrying the innocent Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), kept cloistered by her tyrannical Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong). Peeping through shoji screens, tiptoeing up the grand staircase or wandering into a forbidden library, Soo-Kee begins to understand her lovely mistress's true role in this secretive household, but now can't bear the thought of liberating her into Fujiwara's dubious care.
Not much more may be said of this pot-boiling tale without spoiling the film's narrative tricks, except to note that Park has found satisfying cinematic equivalents for the multiple perspectives of the original novel: Few of the characters in The Handmaiden are quite as good – or as bad – as they seem.
That calls for some nimble work from both Kims and Ha in the roles of the maid, the heiress and the con man, and they master these shifting personalities with élan, always walking that fine line of plausibility in the midst of extravagant melodrama. Jo, meanwhile, is clearly enjoying himself in the role of the creepy uncle, mugging away as the one character about whose wickedness there can be no mistake. At one point, the camera focuses on his oddly blackened tongue; it is only later that the discomforted viewer may realize he has been licking his calligraphy brush.
The original novel turns on the uncle's love of pornography and here, Park finds a provocative parallel in historic Japanese erotica: Kouzuki is a closeted Korean pretending to be Japanese among the samurai playboys who share his unusual sexual tastes.
Filled with bold strokes and startling images, the cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon performs the same cross-cultural aerobatics as the lush setting (designed by Ryu Seong-hie) and the transplanted plot achieve. As perfectly framed pictures contrast sharply with rapid camera movement, the film successfully combines the poise of Japanese visual art with the hysteria of Asia's popular cinema – and, on the Western side, adds a good dose of Gothic atmospherics too. Park's Handmaiden is a great big chocolate box of a movie in which a rich and satisfying narrative is enlivened by some piquant erotica and the sharp tang of politics.