In 1930s Korea, during the Japanese occupation, a grifter (Ha Jung-woo) sets his sights on a beautiful Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) with an aim to woo her, marry her, commit her to an asylum, then abscond with her vast fortune. To this end, he finagles a naive apprentice (Kim Tae-ri) to get a job as the heiress' handmaiden and encourage the heiress to wed this so-called "Japanese count". A snag arises when the apprentice finds herself sexually attracted to the heiress... and that's just the tip of the iceberg, in another mad parade of perversity from Park Chan-wook.
The Handmaiden is structurally complex – the less you know about the story ahead of time, the better – and fully bilingual, with its Japanese dialogue subtitled in yellow and its Korean dialogue subtitled in white, befitting the double-crossing that packs the byzantine plot. (Even the estate where the swindle unfolds has a dual nature: it is one-half Japanese temple and one-half English country manor.) Yet while the film is clearly a statement on the demoralizing effect that the Japanese occupation had on the Korean people, mostly it's just a fun – sick fun – shell game on the audience.
The Handmaiden doesn't have the disturbing emotional impact of Park's "revenge trilogy" (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance), but it's a step above Thirst (his so-so stab at genre) and Stoker (his ill-fated English language debut, where his direction far outshone Wentworth Miller's muddled script). Because the plot is the thing here – the story was adapted from Sarah Walters' 2002 novel Fingersmith, set in Victorian England – you'll find yourself swept up by the various machinations, carried along by some impeccable shots, lush music, and outrageous moments, and ultimately dumped off with a thud. You'll be satisfied by the thrill ride aspect of the film, but left hungry for more sustenance. Nevertheless, it's definitely worth a go. Fans of Park know what's in store. Newcomers expecting a restrained foreign drama are in for an eye-opening experience.