There comes a point in “The Handmaiden,” a tantalizing triple-decker entertainment from the South Korean director Park Chan-wook, when a book of lurid Japanese erotica opens up to reveal a drawing of an octopus wrapping its tentacles around a woman’s nude body.
Consider this your trigger warning, in light of recent election-season headlines, though Asian cinema aficionados will rightly interpret this image, plus a later shot of a giant octopus in a tank, as sly references to Park’s most famous movie, “Oldboy” (2004), in which the actor Choi Min-sik famously gobbled down a live cephalopod on camera.
That scene was a nutty, showboating gesture in a movie with an abundance of outré gore and flashy style, if not much more on its mind than a desire to hammer its audience into submission. On that score, it more than succeeded. After winning a major prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, “Oldboy” cemented Park’s international reputation as well as his fixation with spectacles of bloody and convoluted revenge (see also “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Lady Vengeance,” with which “Oldboy” forms a trilogy).
Since then, the director has attempted to mine fresh genre territory with movies like “Thirst,” a playful vampire-themed riff on “Thérèse Raquin,” and “Stoker,” an eccentric English-language creepfest with Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska — and in both cases wound up confirming rather than transcending the limitations of his talent.
All of which makes “The Handmaiden” even more of an unexpected delight. Without sacrificing his taste for psychosexual perversity or his flair for violent grace notes, Park has given us a teasingly witty and elegant puzzle-box of a thriller whose pleasures are rooted not in visceral shock but in narrative surprise, and which wisely opts to seduce rather than pulverize its audience.
The result is the director’s most absorbing feature in years and perhaps his finest since “Joint Security Area” (2000), a tense, human-scaled action movie that plays out within the moral minefield of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone. Set during the 1930s, two decades before the historic demarcation of North and South, “The Handmaiden” straddles no less contested territory — specifically the politically fraught, linguistically complicated arena of Japanese-occupied Korea.
Park and Chung Seo-kyung’s screenplay unfurls in three distinct chapters, the first of which follows a wily young pickpocket, Nam Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), who becomes the personal handmaiden of a beautiful Japanese heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-hee). In fact, Sookee is merely serving as the instrument of her boss (Ha Jung-woo), a smugly dashing con artist who, posing as a Japanese count named Fujiwara, has sinister designs on Hideko and her fortune.
And so Sookee and the count soon find themselves on the grounds of the magnificent estate where Hideko lives with her intensely domineering Korean uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). And despite the lush trappings of aristocratic privilege, the viewer almost immediately comes to share Sookee’s sympathetic view of Hideko, a childlike, emotionally fragile creature who is forever being subjugated to the whims of men — none creepier than Kouzuki, who often forces his niece to read aloud from his prized collection of rare pornography for the delectation of potential buyers.
Park, for his part, is no pornographer but an exquisite sensualist. His camera (wielded by the cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) invites us to revel in every meticulously appointed inch of Ryu Seong-hee’s production design, and to savor the impeccable coiffure and milk-white skin of his leading ladies as their emotional intimacy begins to breed sexual desire.
And he makes full, uninhibited use of the smoldering chemistry between the South Korean star Kim Min-hee (recently seen in Hong Sang-soo’s excellent “Right Now, Wrong Then”) and Kim Tae-ri, a model making a fine screen-acting debut. The carnal, conspiratorial thrill of their scenes together — the pleasure that Sookee and Hideko derive from each other’s bodies, and which they share in turn with the audience — is somehow inextricable from the thrill of watching them fight their way out of their uniquely oppressive circumstances.
The most intricately plotted movie about the art of the con in recent memory, “The Handmaiden” gradually reveals itself as a drama of physical, sexual and national freedom. It’s a film whose idea of liberation begins with the suggestive licking of a lollipop (among other things) but quickly advances, with extraordinary cunning and ingenuity, into a triumphant expression of romantic and political independence.
Kouzuki’s house, whose architecture and design combine English and Japanese elements, works as an almost literal-minded metaphor for the beautiful prison of colonialism. And fittingly enough, “The Handmaiden” represents its own deft feat of East-meets-West cultural upholstery. The story, with its nesting-dolls structure and dazzling reversals of perspective, is an adaptation of “Fingersmith,” a Victorian-set thriller by Welsh author Sarah Waters that was shortlisted for the 2002 Booker Prize.
For all the bilingual contortions of the dialogue (the theatrical version features color-coded Korean and Japanese subtitles), Park’s movie speaks more than fluently in a Western-friendly cinematic vernacular. You may be reminded of Gothic romances like “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca,” or the Euro-noir manipulations of “Diabolique” and “Gaslight.”
The image of Sookee tending to Hideko in her Western-style boudoir, with its teal bedsheets and floral wallpaper, suggests a kinkier variation on the period dramas that Merchant-Ivory used to crank out on a regular basis — an association further driven home by the keening strings and delicate piano chords of Cho Young-wuk’s surging and operatic score.
Remarkably, Park’s film is one of two first-rate new releases to treat the Japanese occupation as the basis of a tour de force of emotional and psychological trickery. The other, Kim Jee-woon’s “The Age of Shadows,” narrowly beat out “The Handmaiden” as South Korea’s entry in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film — a state of affairs that speaks to the ongoing challenges and compromises of the academy’s needless “one film per country” selection process. See them both, and marvel at their joint assault on a tyrannical system still waiting to be dismantled from within.
Korean and Japanese dialogue with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes
Playing: CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles; Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles