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Gorgeous trash: The Handmaiden offers clever soap-opera thrills

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The Handmaiden.
Mike D'Angelo

Three and a half stars

The Handmaiden Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Not rated. Opens Friday at Regal Village Square.

South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker) has built his reputation on outrageousness, but he’s never made a movie that’s as much sheer trashy fun as The Handmaiden. Adapted from Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, which was set in Victorian England, the film relocates the action to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s (colored subtitles indicate whether characters are speaking Korean or Japanese), where a master Korean thief (Ha Jung-woo) attempts to marry a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) by posing as a count and getting a confederate (Kim Tae-ri) a job as the heiress’ personal servant.

That setup turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg, however, as the movie, told in three parts, repeatedly serves up shocking plot twists, replaying earlier scenes from a radically different perspective. In truth, the (comparatively short) final section is unnecessary, mostly allowing Park to indulge in some of the pointlessly gratuitous violence that’s marred films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. And Waters’ feminist outrage arguably gets subverted a bit by the film’s super-steamy lesbian sex scenes. Those looking for a superbly acted, magnificently plotted, gorgeously designed, explicit (unrated) East Asian period soap opera, however, will be richly rewarded.

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