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With: Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-suk, Moon So-ri
Written by: Park Chan-wook & Chung Seo-kyung, based on a novel by Sarah Waters
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Korean, Japanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 144
Date: 10/28/2016

The Handmaiden (2016)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Decorative Desire

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Handmaiden is based on a novel by UK author Sarah Waters. It takes place in the 1930s, with history lessons and beautiful costumes, and it runs 2 hours and 24 minutes.

But don't for a second think that this is going to be one of those dull, frigid, watching-paint-dry movies that takes life from a page and turns it into onscreen death.

No, The Handmaiden comes from the wicked, perverse South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who is best known in this country for the mad, twisted, criminal masterpiece Oldboy.

Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, The Handmaiden helpfully offers white and yellow subtitles to differentiate the Korean and Japanese languages for Western audiences.

A young orphaned Korean woman, Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), has learned to operate as a pickpocket. She is tapped by another Korean con-artist, a man who poses as a Japanese count (Ha Jung-woo), to assist in a new scam.

Sookee is to become a new handmaiden for a beautiful Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), while the Count swoops in to win her hand in marriage.

Sookee must try to convince Lady Hideko to succumb to his charms, and then help drive her to the madhouse. Instead, Sookee finds herself falling for the elegant lady.

Meanwhile, Lady Hideko lives with her uncle (Cho Jin-woong, with an ink-blackened tongue), who keeps a collection of rare erotic books and forces her to read to guests on a regular basis. Unlike many American movies, this one is not shy about depicting pure, breathless desire.

Director Park's last feature film was an English-language offering, the incredible Stoker, which was as elegant and ornate as it was twisted and darkly funny. He goes further with The Handmaiden, exercising masterful control over the conception and effect of every frame.

The sublime camera movements, sleek editing, and the rich, thick tapestry of light and colors draw our eyes to strange places.

And the use of props (a peach, a lollipop, paints, books, etc.), sets (mirrors, windows), and clothes (a dress with many buttons), continually suggest new layers of deception, mystery, and longing.

It helps that the movie is divided into three chapters, each told from a different character's point of view, and each revealing enlightening new details. While Oldboy contained a whopper of a twist, The Handmaiden tells its story in more measured strokes, and yet is no less lurid or powerful.

Like one of uncle's rare books, it is a thing of beauty, worthy of admiration, but containing squirmy thrills that are very, very human.

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