The Handmaiden: Too long for its own good

B- Erotic noir
Written by Seo-Kyung Chung and Chan-wook Park, from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Directed by Chan-wook Park

Some films really do need to run well over two hours; others don’t. The Handmaiden falls into the latter category. At 80 or 90 minutes, this would have been a really fun movie. But at 144, you spend a lot of time waiting for something worth watching.

Luckily, the waiting is rewarded. For every scene of pointless glances, needless detours, and failed attempts at atmosphere, there are two providing dark entertainment filled with lies, double crosses, surprise plot twists, and a lot of sex–much of it quite kinky.

At the very beginning, we’re told that the subtitles are color-coded. If the printed words are yellow, they’re Japanese. If they’re white, Korean. Set in both countries in the early 20th century, when Japan controlled Korea, the languages being spoken are important. Several of the characters are passing as Japanese.

The handmaiden of the title (Kim Tae-ri) is a young Korean woman who gets a job caring for a Japanese lady living in a large estate (the house is a strange mix of Japanese and British styles). Not that she really intends to help her charge. An accomplished pickpocket, she’s working with an accomplice on a plan for larceny.

Soon she and her lady/intended victim become lovers. This confuses things considerably. How confusing? I can’t tell you anymore without spoiling the story.

I will say this: You can’t be entirely sure of what you’re watching in The Handmaiden. Scenes you’ve already seen come back again from a different angle. Or maybe from the same angle, but this time you have more information, and therefore know who is conning who.

Or…maybe you still don’t know.

Everyone in this movie seems to be obsessed with sex. There’s the lesbian angle, of course. But there’s also the dirty old man with the huge selection of erotic art and books. He invites friends over for readings and sadomasochistic shows.

There’s also one, completely gratuitous, scene of extremely gruesome torture. A young man gets…never mind.

The Handmaiden is being released without a rating…probably to avoid an NC-17.

If you enjoy stories of con artists changing alliances and trying to outwit each other, as well as unique cinematic eroticism, the good scenes in The Handmaiden are probably worth wading through the bad ones. But this could have been a much better movie.