It would be fair to ask, even as early as the first section of this three-chapter film from South Korean director Park Chan-wook, “Who ARE these people, and why are they doing these awful things to each other?”

Relax, everything that needs to be explained is eventually explained. There are answers to questions such as: Is the wealthy Lady Hideko a ruthless antagonist or a victim? Is the beautiful Sookee an innocent or a villainous accomplice in a dastardly plot? Is the suave and smooth-talking Count Fujiwara actually a count or just a cad? And how about the mysterious Uncle Kouzuki? Well, let’s not leave any doubt about him. He’s a vicious, controlling, power-hungry, mean bastard.

Set in the 1930s, and working the utter contempt between Koreans and Japanese at the time into the complex plot, “The Handmaiden” (based on the 2002 London-set novel “Fingersmith”) starts telling one story, infuses it with flashbacks showing that circumstances and people are not what they initially appear to be, then moves on to re-telling the story from a different character’s perspective, then doing it all again a third time.

The film is gorgeous to look at but uncomfortable to think about, in that it’s filled with double crossings (and maybe even one case of triple crossing), attempted murder, suicide, robbery, torture, dentistry (of the sensual variety, if you imagine such a thing), lesbianism, pornographic literature, and some involvement with a large octopus.

Anyone not familiar with the earlier films of director Park might not want to start with this one, which has both Korean and Japanese dialogue behind its English subtitles. A couple of his earlier works — “Thirst” and his to-date only English-language movie “Stoker” — are more accessible. But if you saw and loved his very odd 2003 classic “Oldboy” (which also featured a memorable octopus scene), you’ll be up for the many challenges of this one.

Much of this takes place in the huge, mostly empty country home of the widower Uncle Kouzuki, which is where Lady Hideko, his niece by marriage, has lived since she was a little girl. When she finds herself in need of a replacement handmaiden, the job goes to Sookee, who lands the gig through some connections with Count Fujiwara.

The plentiful flashbacks soon come into play, and because many revelations are introduced early on, a couple can be leaked here, without ruining anything: Sookee is a former pickpocket and thief, the Count is a swindler, and they are about to hatch a devious scheme to relieve someone of their wealth.

But either nothing goes as planned, or plans are made that don’t involve their inner workings to each other. And so there’s that double crossing business to contend with. But getting in the way of it all, or perhaps goading it on, is yet another detail: Many different people here are beginning to have lascivious thoughts about each other.

The sexual tension between certain characters becomes obvious, and an air of sensuality is soon right at the center of the film, along with the difficulty of understanding everyone’s motivations. It’s fun to watch a film and know who to root for, as well as to know, without a doubt, who should get whatever nastiness is coming to them. That’s not the case here. All sorts of dreadful things are committed by and/or happen to assorted characters, but it’s hard to feel sympathy toward anybody because it’s difficult to figure out who’s good, who’s bad or, better yet, who is the most evil.

This is an intense, dark, elegant, moody, creepy, erotic, oddly romantic movie. Though it runs too long at 144 minutes, it’s another welcome addition to the inventive output of Park Chan-wook.

— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

“The Handmaiden”
Written by Chung Seo-Kyung and Park Chan-wook; directed by Park Chan-wook
With Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
Not rated