Ordinary fucking people, indeed. So, it’s been a strange year for the Menagerie. I oddly lost my intent and inspiration for crafting material during a period when ironically I had more time on my hands to devote to writing nonsense, as the day job possibilities took a major hit due to two outside influences. Firstly, the frustrating IR35 regulations wrecked havoc across the public sector, but I won’t bore you with such tedious opinions on that HMRC clusterfuck other than to say that if you think this country is going to deliver on the infrastructure and housing expertise that it needs to even remotely build enough stock and develop sustainable communities then think again – all the grizzled experts are retiring, and the intelligence loss is massive. Hmmph. Then things started to pick up my in industry just before the Grenfell tragedy which understandably and appropriately froze much of the regeneration activities across London, in favour of massive swathes of audits and assessments – at Islington during my last contract I’ve seen first hand just how the technical and financial culture has changed. But, as Tyrell said to a mournful Roy Batty (next year, heh) all of this is academic, and we have other matters to consider, such as the shuttering of this blog. Here’s some Malick to set the scene;
If there is a theme for this final post then it’s transformation, this blogging activity has exhausted its purpose, and while I’d have liked to have covered all of Kubrick and all of Lynch (to name just two) I just can’t muster the mojo any longer. Heck, I was deep into reviews of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and a couple of other Marty’s from the January BFI season (and also a BFI screened 70mm print of Once Upon A Time In The West which is now for me the greatest Western ever made, full fucking stop) but gentle reader the spirit is extinguished, so they must remain incomplete and immaterial. I think part of it is just getting a little older and jaded with the web and its alleged force for good, recent political events are just so infuriating and deeply depressing, on both sides of the pond. Therefore I’m trying to extricate myself from so much artificial interaction, concentrating on other activities is simply essential, especially with the day job developments and the potential for the media to track down potentially damaging phrasing and inappropriate gags I’m sure I’ve made here over the past decade. I don’t wish to sound so self important (I’m really, really not) but on my last contract FOI’s have been issued, and that is bound to be repeated for 2018 given my new activities. Still, I got to go to TiFF and cover the LFF over many years, plus being invited to Cannes a few times was an ego boost and independently sanctioned my credibility. This blog has also influenced the day job, long story short but I had an intense (to say the least) three hour job interview with New Scotland Yard earlier this year, for various reasons that didn’t work out but some of the interview panel positively remarked on my independent writing background which made me grin. Closer to home I also got to meet Bowman and Poole so that fulfils some immortal bucket list from my teenage years. Also seeing one of the worldwide premieres of Gravity and the movie below are experiences I will always treasure;
Yeah, I’ll never forgot seeing that for the first time, I knew immediately that we were in good hands, cinematically speaking. Right, so, The Last Jedi, Star Wars n’ stuff. I suppose that requires some consideration. Seen it twice (technical appraisal), didn’t particularly care for it as a film either time, slightly enjoyed it more as a self contained cultural unit once I’d decompressed the franchise 21st century mandated experience, but have come to admire it more as a passing of the torch and the franchise’s natural evolution. The entire Ren / Kylo / Luke stuff was interesting – that’s Star Wars – the rest was dreadful. It’s just not that an important thing for me anymore, if you’d told me when I was 12 that there would be stand alone Han Solo and Boba Fett movies I’d be hyperventilating like a Sarlacc during its millennial mating period, now I just don’t care. Still interested in IX of course, but for me when it comes to screen SF there is only one mission;
Maybe at this point you are detecting some of my cinematic fetishes as I close this blog out – all time favourite sequence of any film ever? See above. That’s what cinema can be all about, for me that is the moment when all this nonsense started, the experience of a 2D representation of ideas and imagination punctured everything, and all celebration continues. Is TV is approaching such marvels? (see below, which should be seen on a IMAX screen for full mind-bending reprogramming) Maybe. Before we finish yeah, OK, I know some of you were asking for Blade Runner 2049 views but no, alas, I’m not going to be providing that. I liked it on the first viewing (sans a terrible headcold), a fantastic experience with some reservations. Second time around (the technical appraisal) most of those reservations were dispelled, particularly around the emotional arc of the picture and the (must we do SPOILERS at this point?) introduction of siblings and Hollywood’s current fetish for CGI reconstruction, for mere reconstructions sake. At this point the movie is a rare beast that manages to appropriately continue a story in a world so beloved without fucking with some of the intrinsic elements, and I think Villeneuve etc. managed to take the concepts and environment culturally forward from 1982 to 2017. I also watched Arrival again a couple of days ago and that film gets better with every re-watch. Well played, I hope he gets that Dune adaption of the ground. Here’s something of a Menagerie attuned montage;
So, finally, enough is enough, the light fades and the interest dwindles. As I close this out and embark on a new phase of, well, something, I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride and that my mediocre efforts have turned you on to some movies, as that’s what this was always about, really. I think my friends would agree that I’m an opinionated jerk, but that such opinions come from a genuine love and enthusiasm for great and interesting movies and my enthusiasm for sharing them with like minded souls. If I’ve got you to watch one film you’ve never heard of or wouldn’t have seen then that is mission accomplished. In that vein I’ll just leave this sequence for absorbtion. It’s a tough one, and having seen it four times now within the context of the overall arc of the show it continues to yield mysteries and treasures, as it indicates the horrors of the past are still pregnant – Happy New Year;
If there was a glimmer of joy in what will go down in history as one of the most shameful, scandal drenched periods of the moving image industry it was of course David Lynch and Mark Frost’s triumphant return to our screens with Twin Peaks, a mere twenty four years, 6 months and 21 days since the domestic release of Fire Walk With Me. Spectacularly unburdened from any creative molestation from the studio suits and granted an impossible to believe complete freedom of expression it is pure, unadulterated Lynch, bookending his incredible career with another epochal upending of the traditions of formal visual storytelling , as well as serving as simultaneous celebration and summation of his entire forty year career. Can we now speak of an expanded Lynchian Universe™, as per the current vogue for entire franchise landscapes populated by small and large screen spigots which suckle nourishing material for the parched fans of the DCU, Marvel, Star Wars or J.K. Rowlingverse? Perhaps not, but as a parade of his greatest collaborators over the past four decades (Badalamenti, McLachlan, Dern, Coulson, Watts, Stanton, editor Duwayne Dunham, casting director Johanna Ray and DP Peter Deming) it also served as a final cosmic stew of Lynch’s fiction fetishes, his celebration of dream logic, internal damnation and the power of ideas, of the eternal and colossal struggle between the light and dark rendered as starkly as the alternating zig-zag ziggurats slithering across the Black Lodge’s floor. A mere hour or so in its May debut I sensed just how much of this was going to explore the series mysterious interdimensional mythos, relaxing into a treat as we plunged over that Great Northern Hotel waterfall into pure Eraserhead era eugenics. I still can’t believe that something so abstract has permeated the strict hermetics of the TV formula even in this era of hundreds of channels and streaming services, but then again that’s exactly what he achieved back in 1990, only this time he’s really gone to fucking town,
For a show titled Twin Peaks we really don’t spend too much time there do we? For us Lynchophiles this was a, well, a dream, his cacophonous aesthetic which he honed with Mullholland Drive sharpened over 18 mischievous hours with final resolutions leaving more questions posed than ever answered – beware ye from going forward for here be spoilers. I loved that narrative threads and ideas are not even remotely metabolised, merely spun like a web from some crepuscular core to form a discordant yet umbilical patchwork of moods, incidents and trauma. Just as the 1990’s incarnation operated (at least on one of numerous levels) as a satire on the contemporary soap and TV drama format Frost and Lynch continue to toy with the core notions of narrative itself, of cause and effect within the fictitious headspace that we all conjure internally when we watch a film, read a book or even listen to a song. Like a bittersweet, slowly expiring dream fading from the purlieus of memory Twin Peaks: The Return was also riven with a sense of melancholy and tragedy, seeing Catherine Coulson (whose relationship with Lynch tracks all the way back to the early 1970’s) reprise of the Log Lady while in thrall to final stage cancer was deeply sad, not to mention the loss of both Miguel Ferrer, Bowie and Warren Frost before the series aired. Now, I loathe the entire social media tsunami outpourings of grief when a celebrity or public figure passes on, it is in no way relevant to the actual respect or affection that the figure actually engendered and is totally about the Twitter or Facebooker signalling their virtue and their self importance, but that said I am a little frustrated with myself for not remarking on the passing of Harry Dean Stanton given that he’s among my all-time favourite actors, so it was comforting to see him grace us with one final, appropriately moving swan-song;
So long HD, long may the code endure. The fact that a number of the Sight & Sound cadre of worldwide critics have selected it as among the best of the year has caused commotion, and it’s a testament to the merging of the small and silver screens, the usurping of streaming services over traditional media that such a venerable institution now actively seeks nominations from across the moving image realm and no longer restrict the entries from just the theatrical production model. As usual, the commentary has been terrific. One reviewer remarked of this year’s Silver medal winner that ‘It’s not TV or cinema, it’s an uncanny law unto itself’. Another identified the Jacques Tati influenced antics of Dougie as he navigated the perils of both the Las Vegas housing project he found himself unceremoniously materialised within and the corporate landscape populated by mobsters, quivering showgirls, and backstabbing colleagues. Others have noted how the live acts at the Bang Bang! bar act as a tonal bridge between episodes, while how Lynch confidently expands scenes and sequences simply to let the series breathe as much as he nonchalantly turns his back on the conventions of entertainment constrained into the traditional 43 minute plus 17 minutes adverts hour long units of corporate mandated time. It was quite a dizzying nocturnal exercise, staying up until the early morning hours of Monday morning for the UK transmission almost every week, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t simply stream an entire series in one bloated digestion rather than anxiously await each weekly instalment. Those first half run episodes were staggering, a truly avant-garde assault on the senses, causing me to giggle like a sleep deprived hyena that this could pass for popular entertainment in today’s formulaic firmament – yeah, so it is reasonably clichéd at this point but I have to ask, ‘gotta light?’;
Throughout the series Lynch folds space and time like the melange addicted Navigators of Dune, the very first scene inciting queries and compulsions which were partially revealed 5 months and plateaus of space and time later. Frequently time as a narrative construct is elongated and compressed concertina style not just over episode arcs but also in individual scenes, Sarah Palmer in particular the victim of some malevolent daemon manipulating her reality for its own, abstract amusement. Alongside the mourning Twin Peaks also offers a mediation on the passage of time between 1990 and 2017, all the characters have aged, wizened and most have suffered some tragedy or loss, a gloomy ideology punctuated by the series final piece of dialogue when Cooper puzzledly inquires ‘What year is this?’
So you may have noticed I haven’t really delved into the story that we were presented with, the twin alignments of BadCoop evading the clutches of the lodge while being pursued by the Knights Templar of the FBI, while amnesiac reconstructed GoodCoop wrestled with his new found identity as a Being There akin Mid-Western insurance officer. That decision is fostered by the fact that I don’t care, reason and logic sacrificed on the altar of mood and tempo. The plot was secondary to the overall experience of the show, of simply letting the images and ideas wash over you without any intellectual inspection, as it was quite clear from episode one that this was a work that operates primarily on Lynch’s instincts, occasionally steered through the turbulence of incoherence into the blue skies of logic by co-pilot scribe Mark Frost. I do have my personal favourite moments to be sure, and it was certainly fun to inspect the numerous fan theories and theorising on-line, but there are simply no definitive answers other than those that you as viewer bring to the table which for me is the function of truly great works of art. To isolate one example of hundreds in the show is it significant that the terrifying head-crushing, zippo seeking woodsmen has a similar visage to Abraham Lincoln? Undoubtedly. Is Lynch going to explain what he means by that (and in fact does he even consciously know)? Of course not. To explain is to destroy, to evaporate the magic and diminish the audiences interpretation, forging a fixed path of cognition which serves no master;
Still eerily terrifying, no? The techniques were also a summation of the Lynchian aesthetic, yes we were subjected to the atypical strobing effects, the frankly terrifying omni-dimensional audio mix, the over and under-cranking chittering film speeds, and his utterly unique Norman Rockwell Americana perverted through the lens of 20th century European surrealism. But these techniques seemed refined and finalised in this coda defining work, concocting a witch’s brew that left me in awe – the shift of space and place via B&W and colour photography alone is majestic. I can’t think of many filmmakers who can oscillate through nodal points of the same themes without getting stale and repetitive, but his deployment of Doppelgängers, a binary light dark motif he has instructed through Lost Highway, Mullholland Drive and Inland Empire remains fascinating and interesting, curdled with bouts of remorseless violence and trauma which the most legendary of horror directors can’t equal. OK, yes, I’ll admit to being a little conflicted at some of the decisions, the entire Las Vegas mobsters / GoodCoop arc didn’t entirely work for me, series primary antagonist Bob being dispatched by a Cockney armed with green washing up glove seemed somewhat anticlimactic, and the lack of resolution or indeed illustration of Audrey Horne’s story was frustrating, her suggested mental cage hinting at deeper, comatose horrors following the climax of Season 2. But we were blessed with this transcendent moment which operates as simultaneous tribute to her popular persona in the original series and a leitmotif of Lynch and his work, a fallen angel weaving narcotically in the throes of (to steal a phrase) some sort of ‘Bunuelian limbo’;
There is a nice documentary on Dave’s early career doing the rounds by the way. I will keep my gunpowder dry for the moment on that sequence in Episode 8, the cement of an hour of intravenous information which has instantly instilled itself as among the finest hours of television ever broadcast in any period from any country, a sequence I aim to include on my final ever entry to this blog – there is a method to my madness. It is rare but sometimes you just know when watching something for the first time that you are witnessing a potential masterpiece, an immediate entry into the cultural lexicon (the last time I remember thinking this was during the Under The Skin premiere in Toronto) and its detonation is a masterstroke which evokes Stan Brakhage, Mark Rothko, and dare I say it Stanley Kubrick, the terrifying resurgence of a species threatening event which we had hoped been stunned into hibernation at the alleged conclusion of the Cold War. Similarly the last two hours of the series were among the most gripping I’ve spent in front of a screen over the past few years, literally returning to the scene of the crime to reconceptualise and reframe the entire series and its wider cultural phenomenon. As I’m sure you’ve heard the final scene was shot at the real world Palmer house location with its real, present day 2017 occupant answering to Cooper and Laura, igniting a final, horrific, howling primordial scream – guillotine cut, run muted titles & a silent whisper, then get thee to a nunnery. Was Twin Peaks: The Return a momentous statement, apt for our current oppressive and apprehensive times? You betcha, but there is always hope among the darkness, like the dream of the Robins, two souls offering some relief, among the encroaching dark;
Well fuck me it’s darn weird being back here again, after many, many months of neglect. I could barely remember my password let alone the functions of writing a blog post, so please bear with me as I reconnect with an old but terminal exercise. The good news (I guess) is that I’m going to commit to a few year closedown posts of timid length and analysis, the bad news (if anyone really cares) is that this will lead to a final execution of this ten year project once and for all as the day job has officially overtaken this now redundant blog. What have I been doing? Phase 2 of this. What am I involved in from January 2018? This. As such I need to be spectacularly careful of my digital footprint, wary of the press for reasons myriad and numerous, especially since I’m more than positive that some of the comments and jokes I have made on here could easily be located and exploited out of context with horrific consequences. Anyway, back to the matter at hand, here is the usual December montage which isn’t particularly transcendent, and as such representative of a rather average year;
I have been relatively active over the axial orbit movie going wise, but due to project pressures I completely missed the LFF this year (didn’t see a single screening or event) as my schedule simply didn’t gel with other priorities. Ironically I am on target for seeing over 500 films this year on various eyeball assaulting formats, and have managed to cram in some mini seasons on Eric Rohmer, all of Soderbergh’s 21st century material, a revisit of Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, all of the Jarmusch films on Amazon Prime, Ōkami’s Lone Wolf & Cub series and even a revisit of a John Cassavettes box-set. I still don’t chime with the love for him, as much as I can appreciate his ground-breaking achievements in championing independent American filmmaking before Sundance was a faltering glint in Robert Redford’s azure eyes. More montage mischievousness here;
So in order to temper expectations here are my films of the year thus far, presented without commentary or debate and in no particular order – make of this what you will ; Wind River, Personal Shopper, Get Out, Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok, Moonlight, mother!, Lady Macbeth, The Death Of Stalin, Logan and maybe Malick’s Song To Song and the eerily prescient Nocturama. Alas I didn’t see The Florida Project, You Were Never Really Here, Brawl In Cell Block 99, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Good Time, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer nor The Shape Of Water, some of which I’m sure could have arisen to the 2017 Menagerie pantheon if I’d seen them at the LFF. As it stands the ultimate event of 2017 was of course David Lynch’s spectacular bookend to his incredible career, maybe there more there will be more on that……later;
Where it all began, almost fifty years ago, nothing more to say. Rest In Peace, unlike your ravenous creations;
Here’s a illuminating little piece on some of the presumed influences on Lynch, including potential spoilers for Twin Peaks for Season 3;
To say that the Menagerie was excited for the return of Twin Peaks, or rather more specifically the return of David Lynch after a decade hiatus is a spectacular understatement. It is a wider cultural event, with an arch-auteur who has struggled in bringing stories to any screen adding his swansong chorus to the so called third ‘golden’ age of TV broadcasting, by returning to one core text which set the foundations of the modern media landscape of long-form, small screen entertainment. More importantly for me is the simple prospect of another 18 hours of Lynch’s mind – and what a strange, ethereal and occasionally petrifying mind that is – given that he is directing every episode and writing again with his original partner Mark Frost, the stabilising force whom arguably kept Lynch in check to enable some mainstream penetration back in the midst’s of 1990. Given the import of this phenomenon I embarked on a herculean effort of preparation, going to see Mulholland Drive at the cinema which itself was the result of a cancelled TV series, I revisited the criminally unappreciated Fire Walk With Me, squeezed in a screening of Inland Empire and tore through my third re-watch of the original two seasons, all 30 episodes, in a binge watching bloat of three days. To say I am severely Lynched out is another understatement, further compounded by a lovely Sight & Sound reappraisal in this months issue which makes some illuminating observations – given the undercurrent of psychological dread and abuse it references the series Freudian oral fixations (Coffee, Cherry Pie etc.), it situates the series as an early sprouting of contemporary media ‘Hyperdiegesis‘ around narrative properties citing ‘the creation of a vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is every directly seen or encountered within the text’ and from a cinema history perspective summarises Twin Peaks contours as a molestation of Norman Rockwell Americana by European surrealism, primarily the vein championed by Bunuel and Cocteau – Yeah, I think we may have detected where that serrated Black Lodge zig-zag production design element may have originated…..
So let’s start with some fleeting observations on Lynch’s genuine masterpiece, now widely regarded as one of the greatest films of this teenage century, 2001’s Mulholland Drive which has been blessed with a 4K restoration as part of the surrounding hysteria. I’ve already reviewed the film so this will be more of a collection of further reflections and detections that this screening yielded. Firstly the transfer is exquisite, it heightens the tones and stark symbolism of Peter Deming’s cinematography (a long time Lynch collaborator he’s also back on board for the Twin Peaks revival), which reminded me of David Thompson’s lovely phrase that the opening vistas of LA by night reminded him of ‘a scattering of precious diamonds over a black velvet drape’. For all the deconstructions and analysis of the film that has occurred no piece has ever done the film full justice in my mind, in this hopeless pursuit of connecting the narrative and excavating all the mysteries. Great art should always leave some space for the viewer to bring their experiences to the table, and whilst much of the DNA of the film has been codified I prefer for some elements to remain ambivalent and uncertain, as that makes every viewing a deeply satisfying and diverse experience. Case in point – I’ve seen the film a couple of dozen times over the years, and have never noticed that the man who partially comperes the club sequence is the same man as Justin Theroux’s landlord in the sleazy part of town, another doppelgänger in a film infested with mirrors and obfuscations. I’m sure I’ve digested this elsewhere but the fact that we do indeed see the Cowboy (a Hollywood genre stalwart)after his original appearance another two times signals something, Betty/Diane/Rita’s costume when they discover
their a corpse is clearly modelled on Madeleine/Carlotta/Juila’s attire in Vertigo, (oh, also found this which is good), I’d forgotten how funny the film is (the botched assassination, the audition scene, Billy Ray Cyrus) and for me the entire Silencio sequence still remains one of the most eerily magical orchestrations ever committed to celluloid;
After this screening and that hearty binge watch I was suitably buzzed for the 2am UK transmission, after a patient wait of 27 years to return to this bizarre architecture of cryptic giants, menacing dwarves, and crimson draped para-dimensions. I was adrift in expectations after digesting the revelation that the first and last shots of the entire original series, after the title sequences that is, are both scenes refracted in mirrors – and of course similar elements play heavily in Season 3. Welcome to the labyrinth, perverting genre concepts of the soap and procedural mystery show and driving them into more different and dark terrain, as when all is said and done Twin Peaks gravitates around a disturbing orbit of incestual sexual abuse and murder, revealing a web of moral degradation that lurks within an entire locality. I’m a thick skinned viewer but the killing of Maddy, and the ultimate reveal in episode S2E14 is distressing, even in comparison to today’s thresholds I can’t believe the former got through Standards and Practices a quarter century ago.
As an article upstream notes ‘Lynch convinced a major entertainment conglomerate to pay for 18 hours of new material by David Lynch, at the budget he needed, and with complete creative control. He hasn’t had this kind of financial support since he made Dune in 1984.’ That achievement alone is staggering, no? I loved staying up for this, a shared event around the world with like minded maniacs, and boy did if fucking deliver – as others predicted this is pure, uncut, undiluted Lynch, and I’m still processing much of the first four episodes which are positively infested with his earlier work, including long abstract stretches which are pure Eraserhead. So some scattered thoughts with MINOR SPOILERS – The title sequence elicited a Proustian rush, I was shocked at how much of this was set within the Black Lodge, and it was quite touching to see Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer back on screen, reprising an earlier incident way back in the European pilot. The appearance of Lynch alumni from other material – Brent Briscoe, Naomi Watts, Patrick Fischler & Robert Forster – sets the mind spinning on a shared universe which I’m sure other cerebellum of the internet are already formulating. I thought the Michael Cera scene was fucking hilarious, and that encounter early on, well, I’m genuinely apprehensive at giving it another watch. Especially at night. I am sure it has baffled and agitated some of the audience, even the die-hard fans given where a certain character is taken, but I for one am fully on board as the pieces started to make sense around episode 4, although we still await a revisit to some core characters. Make sure you revisit this series this at night with the lights turned off and the audio on high, as the sound mix alone is staggering. Welcome back, old friend;
Having lived in the Limehouse area of London for a few years until my recent decant this interests me, and the book was fairly interesting;
I’m going to keep my powder dry on this one in terms of my long-standing relationship to King’s thirty year magnum opus, other than to say its been a companion to me throughout my life since I was doing my A levels when the first books came out in my late teens. I was very disappointed to see where King concluded the story in the final two or three books but to see it finally come to the big screen, through numerous development difficulties, did make me vaguely excited. That was until this trailer dropped today and my feeble hopes have been dashed, I’ve got a severe Winters Tale feel about this one, as the tone and texture of this screams wrong, wrong, wrong. Goddamn it;
That does not remotely feel like Midworld, that doesn’t look like Jake, and where the fuck are Eddie & Susannah? Or Oy for that matter? I guess they are being reserved for episodes II, III and so on. Jesus, this is not a series suited for slo-mo, ‘cool’ catching rounds and chambers and making superhuman deadeye shot shenanigans, thus it seems they are going to jettison a very strange, prismatic blend of the Western, mythic poetry and post-apocalyptic fiction that stretches across King’s rich multiverse and instead make another fucking generic actioner. Fuck. That. Noise……and no Mr. Executive you don’t get away with lifting one of Morricone’s iconic character themes and get away with it you disrespectful fucks…..
In The Handmaiden, South Korean provocateur Park Chan-wook returns to his native language and production model after 2013’s rather unsuccessful Stoker, and reaffirms his reputation as one of contemporary cinemas most striking stylists. Like his pictures I’ve always had something of a twisted love affair with his work, naturally I’ve seen them all, dating back to his off-kilter Joint Security Area and frequently gasped and groaned at the fusible encounters but never left the dalliance completely satisfied. He’s still best known for the Vengeance trilogy which afforded us with the disturbing Oldboy as the central piece of his taboo busting triptych, a breakthrough international hit which is still regarded as one of the finest films of the 2000’s, which managed not to be tarnished by an utterly redundant Hollywood remake a few years back. Now he’s back with a stunning new film which for shorthand I’d liken to Dangerous Liaisons intertwined with a light smattering of The Duke Of Burgundy, with a keen mastery of Hitchcockian manipulation as seen in the gothic inflected mysteries Rebecca and Psycho.
Flayed and defrayed from the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters the tale has been decanted from nineteenth century Britain to the Japanese occupied Korea of the early twentieth century, as tightly compressed into its title card signalled three act journey as a chubby Victorian debutante is strung into a heaving herring bone bodice. Tamako (Kim Tae-ri) has been newly recruited into the domestic service of mysterious Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), displaced in their remote yet beautiful Japanese / British architectural influenced Very quickly this arrangement is revealed as a sulphurous masquerade, as a conman (played by Ha Jung-woo) operating under the sobriquet of Count Fujiwara, is clandestinely engineering a wicked scheme. He has secretly hired Tamako – real name Sook-hee – from a family of con artists to assist and eavesdrop on his seduction of Lady Hideko, and then committing the fragile porcelain creature to an asylum in order to purloin her sizeable inheritance. I don’t think I’m giving too much away to reveal in a film poisoned with grifters and built on furtive foundations of deceit that a transition act functioning early twist is absolutely spectacular, literally sending shivers up the spine, subsequently unleashing a slithering narrative which had me enthralled for the next few hours.
Finally another missed screening from last years LFF is lassoed like an errant bucking mare, and boy was this a frequently hilarious, tender yet tensile, brilliantly realised piece of work. It took a mere twenty minutes to thoroughly seduce me, on pure aesthetics alone production designer Ryu Seong-hee and costume designer Cho Sang-kyung’s work is equally breath-taking. Working in unison they craft an intricate marriage of detail, shade and geometry in the frame which warms a cradle – or perhaps cauldron – for Chan-wook to cook his perfect command of succulent semiotics, duplicitous desires and erotic deceit. Normally I don’t warm to his films beyond the beauty and craft, and maybe his lightly perverted sense of humour, but he has seriously upped his game on structure, information exposition and empathic viewpoints. Two sequences in particular, crucial transition scenes between the films signalled three act structure are viewed from differing perspectives with new duplicitous inflections and signals which frankly are the very lifeblood of what cinema was invented for, perfectly aligned against Jo Yeong-wook’s glorious Philip Glass reminiscent score.
Within further levels of duplicity and control the film also flirts with upon the colonial assimilation between Japanese and Korean culture during the first half of the 20th century. I can’t even remotely pretend to be au fait with the historical and cultural context to make any revealing comments, but even simple policies such as Sōshi–kaimei ーpressurising Koreans to change their family names to Japanese equivalents – are clearly illuminated and deepen the themes of control, coercion and appropriation. This being a Chan-wook joint the film moves deftly into its erotically taboo areas, pulsing with the repression seething underneath those constrictive garments, which never descends into the morass of exploitation or mere titillation. Just to be a completely pretentious jerk (stop nodding) the use of negative space after certain plot contortions was just sublime, and while I sometimes find it difficult to appreciate the nuances of a performance when the film isn’t in my native tongue both the leads are terrific. Carefully and gracefully they both slowly piece a jigsaw of aligned characters motivations and drives, hacking through their shared webs of subterfuge with a stiletto sharpened passion.
Visually The Handmaiden is bathed in the semiotics of the fear of castration, of literal patriarchal poisoning and menstrual defiance, just one movement of this film alone could potentially impregnate a decade of academic gender studies papers across an entire Ivy league syllabus. Chan-wook revels in Freudian dream image symbology which are nested in peepholes, keys, butterfly hairpins and a bestial, squirming octopi which naturally reflects back on this infamous moment. Like all of his films (and to my mind most of the South Korean movies I’ve seen) it’s just a little too long and could suffer a twenty-minute trim, although I note that there is already a directors cut doing the rounds with extra footage taking the piece to just shy of three hours. In light of articles like this, charting the incremental move from screens for new productions it is welcome to see a film which absolutely had to be seen on the biggest possible, not just because of Hollywood CGI pyrotechnics and carnage, but to fully wallow in an experience where the design, sound and cinematography have been attuned in an essential big screen, shared experience. As far as the Menagerie is concerned this is Park’s best film to date, taking his craft to a higher level, a filmmaker at the peak of his powers – sure, I’ve enjoyed Logan, Get Out and Moonlight over the past few months, but as it stands as we move into peak blockbuster season this is my pick of the year so far;
Oh Tom what have you done? Even with the sound fixed this looks bad, like Suicide Squad dimensions of quantum interstellar density black-hole bad;