Master filmmaker Park Chan-wook transports Sarah Water’s historical crime novel Fingersmith to pre-World Word II Japanese-occupied Korea, mixes in elements of Hitchcock into the already labyrinthine plot, and decorates his frame with sumptuous production design, costuming, and sex. The result is enticingly giddy in its psychological corruption, both of the characters—it’s a standard gas-lighting plot—and of audience expectation.

To achieve this effect, Park uses multiple red herrings to build a twisty story of deception, starting with conman Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) hiring pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) to assist him in his elaborate scheme. Fujiwara plants Sook-hee as a handmaiden to the rich heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a beautiful woman under the thumb of the ruthless Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), a collector of rare and ancient erotica.

Fujiwara plans to use Sook-hee as Hideko’s double and commit her to an insane asylum in Hideko’s place so that Fujiwara and Hideko, now under an assumed identity, can run off to Russia together. To put this plan in motion, Sook-hee and Hideko must grow close publically so that Kouzuki, or any other authoritarian man in Hideko’s life, does not question the deception. But as Sook-hee and Hideko spend time together, they grow closer and begin to develop plans of their own.

The Handmaiden is a sexy and, at times, gratuitous movie, but there is more at work here than simple eroticism. By depicting a lesbian sex scene in the detail that Park does, he focuses on the pleasure of the scene and the pleasures both women draw from it. A pleasure that is vehemently denied them anytime they are in a room with a man. When the men try their hand at seduction, they construct dirty stories of rape and violation. They get their kicks from submission, not passion, which is what these women are seeking. As the story continues to unfold and then fold back, it becomes clearer and clearer that the main thrust of Park’s subversion is how men see the world, specifically how men see sex, and how misleading and wrong their perspective is.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Handmaiden / 아가씨 (2016)
Directed by Park Chan-Wook
Written by Seo-kyeong Jeong, Park Chan-Wook
Inspired by the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Produced by Park Chan-Wook, Syd Lim
Starring: Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Min-hee, Cho Jin-woong

A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 16, “Topple the patriarchy.”