“What is it that men want at night?” the virginal Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee) asks her new Korean maid Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) early in “The Handmaiden.” Poor Hideko is beautiful, rich and lonely. She leads a secluded life inside an opulent mansion — some would call it a prison — with her stern uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a dealer of antique books who likes to have his niece read pornography aloud for potential buyers.
He’s not the only one who exploits and manipulates Hideko. Sookee herself — a former pickpocket — is secretly working for a scam artist (Ha Jung-woo) who passes himself off as a rich Japanese count. Their plan is to make Hideko fall in love with him so he can marry her, lock her away in an asylum and run off with her vast fortune. Hideko has thieves to the left of her, creepers to the right, and for the first 30 minutes of “The Handmaiden,” you fear nothing but calamity is heading her way.
Then director Park Chan-wook pulls off his first reveal — one of the countless twists this sensual, gorgeously depraved movie springs on you. Almost all of Park’s previous pictures (“Old Boy,” “Thirst,” “Stoker,” “Lady Vengeance”) relied on the element of surprise to weave their corrosive magic. But “The Handmaiden,” which transplants the plot of Sarah Waters’ Victorian England-era novel “Fingersmith” to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, throws so many narrative curves at you that the film becomes a cinematic puzzle-box, with secrets nestled within secrets within secrets.
Discovering them is huge fun. So is watching this grand, elegant movie, which finds Park in an unusually sunny mood. Bringing his great filmmaking prowess to bear on material that sounds like it might seem better suited for a chamber drama, Park turns “The Handmaiden” into a wicked entertainment for adults that celebrates the sheer pleasures of storytelling. The movie bears several of Park’s trademark touches, from flourishes of ultra-violence to not one but two memorable appearances by an octopus. The camera swoops through the rooms and halls of the sprawling estate, which fuses elements of Western and Japanese design, in a way that invests every corner of the home with suspense. Never has ornate wallpaper looked more menacing. Through Park’s eyes, a study or library can seem as unnerving as a torture chamber (Park originally planned to shoot the movie in 3D, an indication of how important the visual style is here).
The story’s themes — the victims of colonialism, the oppression between classes, the damage wrought by cultural sexism — are serious. But they’re served up in a movie that makes its playful intentions obvious early on, then starts batting the audience around in unexpected directions. The film is best approached cold, its turns of plot unspoiled. But more timid viewers should know Park has never been shy about depicting graphic sexuality in his work, and he outdoes himself with “The Handmaiden,” in which carnality plays such an important role it deserves its own screen credit. “The Handmaiden” hails from South Korea, but compared to most American movies of its scale and budget, it might as well have been made on another planet. This may not be Park’s best or gravest picture. But it might be his most entertaining.
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong.
Director: Park Chan-wook.
Screenwriters: Chung Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook. Based on the novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 144 minutes. Graphic sex, nudity, violence, gore, adult themes. Parents strongly cautioned. In Japanese and Korean with English subtitles. Opens Oct. 28 in Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Miami Beach Cinematheque.