Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is a movie. Park Chan-Wook, the Korean mastermind behind Oldboy and the exquisitely titled Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, brings you The Handmaiden, a film in three parts that's about as sensuous and surprising as a movie can get in two-and-a-half hours. It opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.
It's 1930s Korea, a period of Japanese occupation, and young Sookee (Kim Tae-Ri) is hired as the handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, Hideko. Sookee is a pickpocket and low-level crook, and her job turns out to have been part of a larger plot, a con orchestrated by a career swindler (Jung-woo Ha) who poses as a Japanese count to seduce Hideko, elope with her, rob her of her considerable fortune, and lock her up in an asylum. Sookee's job is to coax the seduction along, to spy on Hideko and sing the count's praises in the private moments that a lady and handmaiden share — think Lady Mary and Anna Bates in Downton Abbey.
But Sookee and Hideko stumble upon a mutual attraction — lesbian sex in the countryside, folks, and it's a heated affair. In one early scene, Sookee files down Hideko's sore tooth with a thimble. Hideko, naked in a tub, sits with her eyes closed and her mouth open while Sookee gently and lengthily massages the thimble over the tooth. It's a taut, erotic scene — like the rest of film, gorgeously composed and lit — and a foretaste of the more explicit sexual exploration that follows.
The estate in which Hideko lives is owned by her uncle, a masochist and collector of exotic smut. He hosts "readings" in which Hideko is forced to recite passages from erotic works to an audience of tuxedoed bidders. It is among these bidders that the count has ingratiated himself, even becoming a book forger so that the uncle may keep his prized volumes while selling counterfeits.
To reveal much more would spoil an artful plot that unfolds as the movie progresses from three different characters' perspectives. You simply don't see this level of storytelling in movies anymore, and it's a great pleasure to watch as the seeds of a well-planted narrative blossom so elegantly, even if the sexual content might alarm the Cedar Lee's clientele.