“The Handmaiden,” a film based on a novel by U.K. author Sarah Waters, takes place in the 1930s. It has history lessons, beautiful costumes, and it runs two hours and 24 minutes.
But it’s not 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 wicked, perverse South Korean director Park Chan-wook, 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 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.
But 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.
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. With “The Handmaiden,” he goes further, exercising masterful control over the conception and effect of every frame.
The sublime camera movements, sleek editing, and rich, thick tapestry of light and colors draw viewers’ 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.
Three and a half stars
Starring Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
Written by Park Chan-wook, Chung Seo-kyung
Running time 2 hours, 24 minutes
Note: The movie screens at Landmark’s Embarcadero, Aquarius and California theaters.