The Handmaiden (18) ★★★★☆

SOUTH Korean maestro Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst) returns with this arresting erotic psychological thriller in which nothing is ever quite what it seems.

In 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a girl from a simple background who is hired to be the new handmaiden for enigmatic Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who dwells in a secluded countryside mansion along with her mysterious uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong).

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However, it’s quickly revealed that the seemingly meek and innocent Sook-Hee is actually there to rob the rich master on the orders of swindler and phony nobleman Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). But just as things seem to be going according to plan, Sook-Hee and Hideko start feeling some unexpected emotions for one another.

There’s something beautifully confounding about Park’s latest film; it skilfully tempts you into its lair of multi-tiered mystery, subverted expectations and genre jumping. The grand central locale feels very much like a character in itself, as sumptuous and mysterious to us as it is to the titular character; the resplendent cinematography, intricate set design and unendingly mesmeric tone creates a world unto its own.

While the increasingly heightened and oftentimes bizarre events unfold throughout its corridors, it evokes Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca as it deals with a new person encroaching on an established household order and, while never overtly ghostly, Robert Wise’s The Haunting in how the elaborate domicile seems to take on a life of its own.

It has a formal three act structure, each told from a different perspective to shed new light on what we thought we already knew in a tip of the hat to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. This creates both a consistently compelling manner in which to experience the story and an unnervingly constrictive atmosphere that coils around you like a snake.

Park’s film is a stunning exercise in using formalism and theatricality to expose an undercurrent of menace, seductiveness, power plays and betrayal. Like its endlessly captivating central location, it seems prim and proper on the surface but under this lies a deliciously provocative, sensual, dangerous and disquieting world.

Much has been made of the film’s showcased eroticism. It’s certainly true that Park never holds back in that department – it really earns that increasingly rare 18 age rating – but the eroticism is used as a keen-eyed mechanism with which to heighten the various double-crosses, thematic intentions, shadowy objectives, electrifying atmosphere and intentionally misleading POV switches. Trust no-one in this story and yet you’ll want desperately to believe them all.

It functions with a deliciously dark, stylistically realised plot unafraid to go for the outrageous; it’s very much an assault on the senses and sensibilities. But it’s always achieved with a graceful panache, stylistic confidence and thematic astuteness that further solidifies Park as one of the finest directors of style meets substance cinema working today.