‘The Handmaiden’: Crush complicates the con in multi-layered tale

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Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee in “The Handmaiden.” | AMAZON STUDIOS/MAGNOLIA PICTURES

When the voters for one of those made-for-TV movie awards shows hand out the trophy for Best Kiss or Most Romantic Couple or Sexiest Scene, if they don’t include the fireworks between Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee in “The Handmaiden,” it will be because they haven’t heard of, let alone seen “The Handmaiden.”

Don’t be like the voters for one of those made-for-TV movie awards shows. See “The Handmaiden,” for not only does it contain bold and daring — and yet, integral to the plot — sex scenes mainstream Hollywood wouldn’t dare explore these days, it’s a beautifully filmed, wonderfully challenging, multi-layered tale of trickery upon trickery, short con upon long con, deception upon deception.

Even when I was a bit lost in the beautiful fog of the complex story, I was enthralled.

Like this weekend’s other four-star offering, “Moonlight,” the great Park Chan-Wook’s “The Handmaiden” ladles out the story in three distinct chapters.

The similarities come to a crashing halt there.

In the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s, a beautiful and conniving young woman named Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired as a handmaiden in an enormous estate owned by an immensely wealthy Japanese book collector (Cho Jin-woong), and the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is the niece of the book collector’s late wife.

Sookee is a plant, placed in the job by a clever near-sociopath of a con man who calls himself Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo in a performance of great oily charm). A poor Korean by birth, Fujiwara has reinvented himself as a slick, well-attired, well-connected Japanese count.

The con, at least at first, seems relatively straightforward. With Sookee working from the inside to help things along, Fujiwara will seduce Lady Hideko and separate her from her fortune.

Ah, but then Sookee begins to develop feelings for Hideko. Serious feelings. Serious feelings that lead to seriously intense encounters between the two women.

To say things get complicated from there just might be the movie understatement of the year. Suffice to say there are myriad twists and turns, stunning flashback sequences and tense moments when you’ll find yourself holding your breath while rooting for this one thing or that one thing to happen without anyone catching on.

“The Handmaiden” traffics in heavy drama, never more so than when the young women rebel against the oppressive, manipulative and at times abusive men who are trying to control their lives — but it also contains some pitch-black humor, e.g., the moment when a key character almost dies because another key character momentarily and inadvertently lets a noose tighten around her neck.

Based on the novel “Fingersmith,” which was actually set in Victorian England, “The Handmaiden” relocates a terrific story with great success. It’s not as if an adaptation in the original location wouldn’t have worked; it’s just difficult to imagine it being as lush and vibrant and as infused with so many unforgettable visuals.

With each passing chapter, each passing “reveal” about the main characters, “The Handmaiden” becomes more intriguing, more engrossing. In nearly every frame, one marvels at the elaborate and intricate set design, the precise detail of the costumes, the innovative use of color and light and shadows, the brilliance of the cinematography.

Park Chan-wook is a master of classy trash, most notably in the “Vengeance Trilogy.” There’s artistry in his filmmaking, but also a lot of blood, plenty of sick humor and moments of sheer lunacy.

“The Handmaiden” ranks among his best films yet.


Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures present a film directed by Park Chan-Wook and written by Park and Chung Seo-Kyung, inspired by the novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. No MPAA rating. In Japanese and Korean with English subtitles. Running time: 145 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

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