THE HANDMAIDEN — Review by Susan Granger

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Set in 1930s Korea, during the Japanese occupation, auteur Park Chan-wook’s romantic melodrama revolves around larcenous Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), an ambitious pickpocket recruited to help a con man, known as Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who is planning to seduce lovely, lonely Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to obtain her large inheritance. This aristocratic Japanese heiress lives in a magnificent manor house, deep in the woods, with her tyrannical uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), an avid collector of rare exotic books whose tongue has turned black from licking his ink brushes. Read on…

Groomed since childhood to marry avaricious Kouzuki, devious Hideko tells Sookee that, when she was little, her deranged aunt (Moon- So-ri) hanged herself from a cherry tree and has become a ghost.

When Sookee has slyly established her servant status in the sumptuous household, fraudulent Count arrives, explaining he’s a painter from an impoverished noble family. Perverse Kouzuki hires him to forge illustrations for new books that can then be sold as originals.

One evening, Kouzuki invites several potential clients to a formal reading of sadomasochistic stories from his collection. Dressed in full geisha attire, exuding a shimmering sexuality, Hideko artfully entices and arouses her audience.

What the gentlemen don’t realize is that Hideko and Sookee are engaged in their own lesbian love-making, satisfying their intimate desires and setting their own goals. So who is manipulating whom?

Based on Welsh novelist Sarah Water’s 2002 “Fingersmith,” which was set in Victorian England, it’s been adapted by South Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “Stoker”) and co-writer Chung Sen-kyung.

Like “Rashomon, this lushly atmospheric tale is told in three parts and from multiple points-of-view, intensified by Cho Young-Wuk’s melodic score.

In Korean and Japanese with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Handmaiden” is an elegant, erotic 8, an elusive, yet exquisite example of sybaritic Asian cinema.

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