Following his disappointing first foray into English-language filmmaking with the violent and visually arresting but silly “Stoker,” Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook returns to his native land with “The Handmaiden,” a thriller set in 1930s Korea, during Japanese colonial rule.
Unfortunately, the director also falls back on some of his worst habits with this lurid tale, adapted by Park and Chung Seo-kyung from the 2002 novel “Fingersmith” by Welsh author Sarah Waters. Those peccadillos include his reliance on style over substance, and a facility for action — in this case, lesbian sex as imagined by a heterosexual male — that gives short shrift to his characters’ interior lives while devoting at times unseemly attention to their physical behavior.
The film relocates Waters’s story from Victorian England to the Korean home of the wealthy Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is living with her uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a collector of vintage literary erotica. A Korean con artist posing as a Japanese nobleman known as the Count (Ha Jung-woo) hires the Korean petty thief Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) to take on the position of Hideko’s handmaiden, to assist him in a scam: Make Hideko fall in love with and marry him, whereupon the Count will have Hideko declared insane, splitting her estate with Sookee. The fact that these characters, both Japanese and Korean, are played by Koreans, adds a thin layer of irony, reinforced by the film’s implicit critique of colonialism — one that’s been baked into the circumstances of the story. Both the Count and Sookee look at the Japanese with a mix of resentment and envy.
Such political subtext, however, takes a back seat to a more prominent plot line, which centers on the romance that blossoms between Hideko and Sookee. In short order, the two women are shown gazing at each other suggestively as Sookee gives her mistress a bath, and then writhing together in an overheated parody of Sapphic lust in Hideko’s bed. One particularly silly shot is set up as if filmed from inside Hideko’s genitalia.
But there are other, better twists coming. The film is told in three parts: the first from Sookee’s point of view; the second (which includes an unexpected betrayal) from Hideko’s; and the third, a synthesis of the first two chapters, revealing yet another double-cross.
As far-fetched as it sounds, such torque-y plotting works, catching the audience off guard, even if the quasi-feminist payoff is less satisfying than it should be, thanks mostly to the film’s puerile fascination with girl-on-girl action.
This being a Park Chan-wook film, there are more surprises in store, including the appearance of a marine invertebrate that will be familiar to viewers of the director’s “Oldboy.” There’s also the pointlessly fetishistic insertion of a knife in a body part so inappropriate that uncomfortable squirms, not titillation, seem the only reasonable response to the scene, not to mention the whole point of the movie.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains strong sexuality, nudity, violence and obscenity. In Japanese and Korean with subtitles. 145 minutes.