The problem with with The Handmaiden is that it starts out perfect. Just perfect, I mean, everything I want a movie to be is in there: utterly lush, can't-stand-it-how-pretty costumes and production design that bring pre-WWII Korea to life with elegance and great vividness while also locking the film into a visual schema based on rigid geometric formulations that is both visually interesting in the abstract and evocative of the narrative boxes the characters are stuck in; a barnburner of a flashback structure that does my absolutely favorite things flashbacks can do, which is to stage the same action twice in two completely incompatible emotional registers and have it make perfect sense both times; a promiscuous mix of genres in which romantic melodrama, psychological thriller, erotica, and historical re-enactment all take their turn as the film's dominant mode; three sublime central performances; and because why not just keep being great, the cherry on top is Jo Yeong-wook's wonderful score, blurring the separation between European and East Asian musical styles to seal the way that the script and physical spaces do much the same with narrative tropes and architecture.

And then it has to come to the third of its three parts, and just go straight to hell. I won't say there's nothing in the film's last twenty-odd minutes that I don't like, because if nothing else, it doesn't magically cease to be well-shot; but everything worst about the movie is backloaded. In particular, the film has the profound misfortune to end on what it easily my least-favorite moment, the only one of the several lesbian sex scenes throughout that felt gratuitous, and where it's thoroughly apparent that this was made by a straight guy who, art notwithstanding, enjoys looking at naked women. It's never nice when generally great movies take a turn for the bad (and there's other problems that I won't mention, other than to suggest that the film starts flattening out its characters right when it should be deepening them even more, abandons its beautifully complex system of up-ending our presumptions of where the film is going to become wholly straightforward in its plotting, forgets everything it has so nimbly demonstrated about pacing and the appropriate use of slowness, and drops in a rampaging fire to distract us from a gaping plot hole, but calls attention to it instead), because it's easiest to remember how disappointed you were as the credits started to roll and not so much how overawed and transported you were for two straight hours before that.

I will not, anyway, talk about the ending any more, other than to give context for why the following rave review is punctuated by what will seem like a low score. You should cares about critics scores, anyways. Let us instead back up to the more joyful parts of the film, when it is doing everything right and stands proud as one of the highlights of a really magnificent class of Cannes competition titles. The hook, taken from Sarah Waters's novel Fingersmith by director Park Chan-wook and co-writer Chung Seo-kyung, couldn't be more elegantly simple: against the backdrop of Japan's occupation of Korea (a setting used in a more active way in the current The Age of Shadows), a conman and thief (Ha Jung-woo) coerces a young woman, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), who works for a ring of pickpockets that he knows, to take the job as handmaiden to a Japanese noblewoman, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the better to serve as his eyes and ears while he, posing as the fictitious Japanese Count Fujiwara), courts Hideko in order to get at her fortune, prior to dumping her, forgotten, into an insane asylum. The plan only hits one snag: Sook-hee falls in love with Hideko.

Giving away more than that would entirely spoil the fun of The Handmaiden, while also probably being impossible. For such an entirely simple, darn near primordial concept (the con falls in love with the mark), Park and Chung extract an inordinate amount of complexity simply by virtue of how they elect to present the information, and which character's point of view is favored in doing so. The film restarts twice, both times to show us an alternate impression of what we assume to be facts (thanks to the deep bias that cinema, as a recorded medium, depicts truthfully), both times becoming a more complicated and rewarding system of character studies in the process. Not just what we see portrayed but how it is portrayed matters: different angles of the same event reveal unsuspected secrets and knowledge among the characters we didn't even realise we were being deprived. In one of Park's most bravura gestures, a single sex scene is repeated twice, once in elusive, visually chaste shots, and once as borderline pornography, and the difference is entirely a function of character, and even of genre: the film is first a stately romantic melodrama, then a fucked-up erotic thriller about all the ways that women are abused by men, including some rather colorful ways that I doubt most of us would have thought about beforehand.

It is very much a film about sex: how we feel about it, how we think about it, how we depict it in different art forms, how we experience it, and how we experience it by proxy (as in, for example, by watching art house movies about lesbians; I can't shake the feeling that both narratively and visually, Park is indicting his own audience by aligning our position as spectators to the film's villains). It is both celebratory and condemning; it is intellectually & artistically refined, while also being prurient. I can't even think of the last film about sex that was this effective and sophisticated in its aesthetic techniques. Mind you, it's about a lot of other things: the recursive structure could be applied to any storyline in the world and be equally effective in depicting how lies work and how people learn about other people; it even depicts how we make snap judgments about meaning in movies based on editing and camera position, by taking great care to show how the editing and camera have mislead (it is, in this, one of the most Hitchcockian films in an age - specifically the descendant of Stage Fright's famous lying flashback).

It's also simply about pure visual pleasure: the production values are off the charts, with great, sumptuous sets that crazily draw from English and Korean traditions (and are flagged as doing so), and some of the most beautiful costumes of 2016 (doing terrific character-building work, too). Chung Chung-hoon's camera moves along tightly controlled lines, moving through space with the linear formalism of a Fritz Lang film. Or, for that matter, a Park Chan-wook film, with the director's customary ability to translate enormously robust emotions into visual representations in fine form; I won't say that it does this more consistently or better than Oldboy, still and always his best film, but it certainly comes close. The movie is an enormously enjoyable thing to look at, as it plugs feelings straight into one's brain, and as it makes brutal shifts in what those emotions are with no warning. It's a damn shame that the ending doesn't live up to what precedes it, but while it's working, this is some of the most captivating and effective cinema of 2016, or indeed any of the last several years.