Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden looks at first glance to be a stuffy costume drama, but, as is to be expected from the director of Oldboy, it becomes a very different beast. In 1930s Korea, young Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired to be the handmaiden of Japanese heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who lives with her creeper uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). He intends to marry her for her wealth, but unbeknownst to Hideko and Kouzuki, Sookee is colluding with a con man known as the Count (Ha Jung-woo) to trick Hideko into marrying him instead. Or are they? After following Sookee, The Handmaiden twists back on itself to retell the story from Hideko’s point of view and recontextualize everything we’ve seen, but don’t let’s bury the lede: It’s no mistake the first three phrases in the IMDB’s Plot Keywords list are “lesbianism,” “explicit sex,” and “female nudity.” But for as much time as Kims Tae-ri and Min-hee spend naked and exploring the other’s body, it never feels as gratuitous as other recent woman-on-woman sex scenes directed by men. While The Handmaiden is an empirically gorgeous movie no matter what’s happening on screen, it also has no business being two-and-a-half hours long. It loses its momentum in the third act — but lordy, those first two acts.
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