By Jonathon Sharp

The Handmaiden, the latest work from Oldboy visionary Chan-wook Park, is a devious and unquestionably fun puzzlebox, stuffed with lies and lacy erotica, all wrapped in an absurd literary sheen.

The story, which is set Korea in the 1930s and based on the novel “The Fingersmith”, follows a young pickpocket as she tries to become the trusted handmaiden of a gorgeous Japanese heiress, whose uncle is the collector of rare books, particularly Japanese erotica.

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The pickpocket’s mission is to help convince the heiress to fall in love with her co-conspirator, the handsome and greedy count, whose plan it is to marry the heiress, get access to her fortune and toss her in an insane asylum. The pickpocket would, of course, get a cut of the treasure.

As always, things don’t go as planned.

Instead, the pickpocket falls in love with the heiress, and the heiress, after a lifetime of being forced to read bizarre books to old creepy men, is much more cunning than she first lets on, and she’s able to manipulate both the count and the pickpocket.

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The film is structured in three parts, Roshomon-style. Each of the central characters (the pickpocket, the heiress and the count) gets an act showing their perspective. With each one, the story changes substantially, as the complexity that wraps the film up early on is eventually peeled off, deliciously.

At its core, The Handmaiden is a moving love story, with the two female characters rebelling against all the forces that seek to constrict and define them, particularly as tools to the advancement and pleasure of men. While the intimate scenes between the women might border on soft-core, there’s a playfulness, both visually and conceptually, that’s undoubtedly artful.

Park, meanwhile, appears to be in full possession his powers. He is both an auteur (his signature hyper violence makes an appearance towards the end) and yet he doesn’t ever appear so self-indulgent as to forget the viewer. The clues he places in the film are meant to be noticed,and their explanations are consistently, if not always, sweetly satisfying.

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The Handmaiden is one of the most fascinating, well-crafted and unforgettable films of the year. It’s playing at at the Lagoon Cinema.

Jonathon Sharp