The young, delicate Lady Hideko has never left the mansion she was raised in from childhood. Her Uncle Kouzuki is grooming her for marriage—to himself, so he can plunder her inheritance. Until then, he keeps her in gilded captivity. Meanwhile, the teenage Sook-hee, an orphaned street urchin, runs with a Dickensian pack of thieves and pickpockets. Its leader, Count Fujiwara, is a savvy con man who plans to seduce Hideko, elope, then declare her insane and inherit the fortune. To facilitate the con, he arranges for Sook-hee to infiltrate the household as Hideko's handmaiden.
The year is 1930, the place is Korea, and the movie is The Handmaiden, the latest from director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy). But if the setup sounds a little Victorian, it is—or was. The script is based on Fingersmith, a novel by Sarah Waters, set in nineteenth-century England. Park shuffles elements of the original story into a charged erotic thriller with ingenious narrative twists. Nothing in this film is as it seems.
On one level, it's a layered storytelling con, broken into three parts that retell events from different characters' perspectives. It's also a psychosexual suspense thriller with scenes of escalating weirdness. There are whips, and ritual readings of classic erotica, and an octopus.
On another level, it's a puzzle-box mystery in the key of Hitchcock, who is alluded to in playful visual puns. But the pulsing heart of the movie belongs to Hideko and Sook-hee, whose fierce passion blossoms amid all the treachery and deception. The unrated film's sex scenes are graphic indeed; they are at once intensely erotic and fundamental to the story. If the English language had an exact antonym for gratuitous, I'd use it here.
It's beautiful to behold a film this finely crafted. The pacing is brisk, the performances are perfectly pitched, and there's even a sustained note of goofy humor running through it all. Park is a renowned visual stylist, and he delivers virtuoso camera moves and compositions.
Ultimately, The Handmaiden is a story of liberation, sexual and otherwise, and the climactic revelations in the final scenes are enormously satisfying. If you can spot the expertly concealed plot twists coming, you'll have outdone me. I spent the first third of the film intrigued, the second third confused, and the final third filled with giddy admiration. This is one of the best films of the year.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fifty Shades of Cray"