THE Handmaiden is at times lavish and decadent, at others absurd and grotesque. Director Park Chan-wook slowly peels back layers of deceit and contradiction, however, to reveal a pearl of liberation and love.

In the first act of this erotic triptych, the eponymous heroine Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) says, “Where I come from, it’s illegal to be naïve.” As we are immersed in this labyrinthine tale we come to realise that here the same rules apply. The film is inspired by Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, in which a young girl is taken from a Dickensian pickpocket hovel and lured into a scheme to unlawfully obtain a large inheritance from a wealthy heiress.

Chan-wook transplants this story to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Our Fagin-esque crook here is Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), hell-bent on acquiring Lady Hideko’s (Kim Min-hee) sizeable fortune. The Count enlists Sook-hee to become Lady Hideko’s handmaiden, convince her to fall in love with him, and liberate her from her authoritarian uncle and soon-to-be husband Kouzuki (Jo Jing-Woong), only then to send her to an asylum and pocket her wealth.

While on the surface a relatively straightforward crime plot, Chan-wook’s characters soon reveal themselves as just that – characters. They are unreliable phantoms that seduce each other and the audience into illusory traps and false dawns. What bubbles below these deceitful narratives – just like the creature living in the mysterious basement of the house – are the truest desires of the complex humans this story wraps itself around.

A kind of dance ensues between the story and spectator, the seen and unseen, the real and imagined. As uncle Kouzuki says: “Even listening to the same story, people imagine different things.” Midway through the second act, at a pivotal point in the story, we realise that all is far from what it seemed, and that we had been foolishly naïve in falling for the film’s alluring slight-of-hand imagery. Moments in act one that were seemingly insignificant suddenly burst with meaning – not exactly plot twists, rather plot epiphanies.

Tae-ri and Min-hee both play their roles with the complexity and contradiction their characters require, as they both swing between the Blakean extremes of innocence and experience. At one moment a snowflake-like fragility is portrayed, in the next a cunning display of nerve.

In their shared scenes they are often breath-taking, no more so than when Sook-hee files Lady Hideko’s sharp tooth down with a thimble as she sits in the bath, her eyes encapsulating that gradually altering perception that is rife throughout this tale. “The story is about the journey,” says Kouzuki in the final scene – one from incarceration to liberation, from hate to love.

In The Handmaiden Chan-wook weaves a story of empowerment and eroticism, a journey through the conflicted psyche of its characters as they mutate and transform in front of our astounded eyes. It is a journey that you do not want to miss.

Joseph Gilson