Erotic thriller 'The Handmaiden' beguiles and disturbs

Kim Min-hee as the captive Hideko.

Kim Min-hee as the captive Hideko. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios / Magnolia Pictures

In the hidden-away reading room of a gothic estate, well-dressed men sit in rapt attention as a woman recites erotica.

Their quarters are guarded by a snake sculpture, its fangs bared as if to ward off anyone unworthy of the carnal knowledge within. Their hush-hush gathering has the feel of a secret society. Tonight’s story is of the sadomasochistic variety — “As I felt the duke approach from behind, a rope slithered around my neck” — and the young woman wraps her gloved hands around her own neck for effect as the story nears its climax.

This moment comes more than an hour into Park Chan-wook’s sensuous and absorbing The Handmaiden, by which time most of us watching will think we have a firm grasp on what’s at work in this beguiling film. Then it sheds its skin and takes on a new form.

Hideko (Kim Min-hee) is as captive as her audience while performing this reading at the behest of her domineering uncle (Cho Jin-woong). As a wooden dummy descends from the ceiling so she can demonstrate one of the story’s more provocative techniques, we can sense the gears turning in the mind of one listener in particular: the Count (Ha Jung-woo).

Matters of control have long factored into Park’s work, and his latest takes that fixation to an almost self-reflective level; the very act of watching this movie feels like an exercise in power dynamics. The meticulous, vengeance-inclined filmmaker’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith is constantly changing form.

The story begins in Japanese-occupied Korea circa the 1930s, where we’re first introduced to the Count’s plan. He wants to seduce Hideko, the orphan heir to vast riches, and ship her off to the madhouse as soon as he’s secured her inheritance. To do so, he sends the young thief Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to make Hideko more susceptible to his wiles. This would-be mark is beautiful and detached, secluded in her chambers like Sofia Coppola’s vision of Marie Antoinette; in her fragile beauty she seems almost unknowable.

To say much more about what transpires would be a disservice to the movie’s immense narrative pleasures, but know that pawns, kings, and queens are constantly switching place and few pieces end up where you expect them. The Handmaiden is divided into three sections, with each new movement offering glimpses of earlier events from new perspectives. (The last of these sections is both the shortest and least essential, lingering for so long on certain moments that their effect is almost lessened.)

What’s most amazing is that, despite all the craven plotting, graphic sex, and even a brief foray into torture, The Handmaiden stays in the mind primarily as a deeply involving romance. Its two main lovers are the kind you root for even and especially when they seem star-crossed. With a feminist bent and endless visual ingenuity, Park makes sights like a hanged woman in a blossoming cherry tree as ravishing as they are disturbing.

The Handmaiden has the pace and scope of a binge-worthy miniseries, the sumptuous production design of an autumnal prestige picture, and lurid, off-kilter details that only an auteur like Park could dream up. At times, to watch it is to feel as though you’ve wandered into that reading room and seen something you shouldn’t have — not that you’ll want to look away.

The Handmaiden
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Opens Friday, Lagoon Cinema