One of South Korea’s chief cinematic exports is vengeance, and one of its top manufacturers is Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “Stoker”), whose 10th film, “The Handmaiden,” is a deliciously black-humored erotic thriller about thieves using a long con to bilk an heiress out of her fortune.
It’s based on Sarah Waters’ novel “Fingersmith,” moved from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese control (circa 1930), most of the story retained but embellished by Park’s darker impulses. Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is an illiterate pickpocket in a Fagin-like den sent by phony “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to be maid for the icy, haunted Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who lives with her eccentric uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a collector and admirer of pornography. (Lady Hideko, by the way, is the sort of woman who boasts about her mother having died in childbirth: “It’s like I strangled her.”)
The idea is for Sook-hee to soften Hideko for when Fujiwara comes a-courtin’; persuade her to marry him; and then to put Hideko in an asylum and run off with her money. The first complication: the maid develops a crush on her lady, and the affections are seemingly reciprocal. There are further complications — crosses, double-crosses, triple-crosses — not to mention sexual deviance, a foreboding basement, a cherry tree in the backyard where hangings have occurred, and (perhaps a callback to “Oldboy”) an octopus. Park’s elegant framing and masterful camera work lend an air of class to the admittedly tawdry story, with sex scenes so steamy and cruelty so gratuitous that you have to smile at the filmmaker’s cheerful perversity.
B+ (2 hrs., 25 min.; Korean & Japanese with color-coded subtitles; )