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;
Park Chan-wook is back after his less than successful foray into the English language format with Stoker, and judging by the energy and…well, the discomfort of this trailer here’s hoping he’s fully back on delirious track;
On a vaguely related front concerning strange foreign language films, may I humbly recommend the Spanish seething Marshland? Despite inevitable comparisons to True Detective we’re in a sunbaked 1980, the country is slowly adjusting to the abdication of Franco as the rural set procedural sees two cops investigating the rape and murder of a number of young women. So far so obvious right? Well no, as the atmosphere is very carefully crafted, the photography is outstanding, and the slightly offbeat setting is just exotic enough to maintain interest – here’s a trailer;
Having little in the way of time or inspiration I’m afraid there won’t be much in the way of reviews this weekend, especially since there is precisely zero screenings in London which piqué my interest. Instead here is the three and a half hour documentary on the making of Park Chan-Wook’s cold-dish revenge classic Oldboy, a terrific behind the scenes look at how modern movies are made;
I think we can all agree that this studio bastardisation of one of the most beloved cult movies of the 2000’s is going to be enormously popular with the film community, and it won’t in the slightest dilute the nausea inducing final revelations;
The lowest form of wit eh? Oh Mr. Lee, what have you done? Have you really xeroxed that sequence as well, it’s certainly implied. Still, it’s quite convenient of the studio to give the entire plot away in two and a half minutes though, should save us all some time…
Suburbia has always been a fertile ground for slaughter. What is it that drives the horrors committed behind those perfectly manicured lawns and immaculate white picket fences? Is it all those failed dreams, those mouldering marriages and the suffocating sense of bourgeois conformity that ignites the homicidal rage? Anyone looking for answers to those questions in acclaimed director Park Chan-wooks first American film had best not hold their breath as there is little illumination offered in this grim psychosexual fable, the swiftly sculptured realisation of one member of the so-called Hollywood ‘Black List’s’ of the best 10 unproduced scripts that had been pinballing around the various studios for the past three years. In an effort to preserve the mystery I only watched the trailer for the film once despite linking to it here numerous times, I’ve gleaned that it had split opinion from festival screenings (particularly TIFF) and had been likened to a contemporary update of Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, his personal favourite of his 59 pictures. So whilst I got a flavour of what might be on offer I very little specifics about the movie’s plot or peccadilloes, other than a sense that a disturbingly mysterious murderous melodrama might be lurking on the edge of American Beauty town. I’m still not entirely convinced about Park Chan-wook, I quite liked his venerated but overrated ‘Vengeance’ trilogy well enough and was reasonably seduced by the overlong but amusingly bloody Thirst from a few years back, of course it was the currently being remade Oldboy which instantly catapulted him to global visibility beyond the fringes of international cult film fandom, the latter already being a sobering ten years old. His violent fables certainly have their strengths, he has a idiosyncratic and refreshing visual sense in tandem with an instinctive grasp of the creepy and uncanny, but his films tend to sprawl and sputter without really going anywhere, an element which I’m afraid to say hobbles Stoker’s subversive designs.
Whilst everyone seems to be going crazy about clumsy Oscar® pilferer Jennifer Lawrence can I stealthily suggest that we also keep an eye on the increasingly high-profile Mia Wasikowska as a future star to watch? In Stoker she is the jeopardous India Stoker, a troubled and isolated young girl brooding in a crepuscular Southern American town, a melancholy which is compounded when he father dies in a slightly suspicious car accident on her 18th birthday, a symbolic timing if ever there was one. Her mother Evelyn, portrayed with the trademark brittleness of this phase of Nicole Kidman’s supporting star career is aloof and distanced from the tragedy, and doesn;t hesitate to invite her husband’s brother Uncle Charley (big bad wolf Matthew Goode who clearly want to ‘eat them all up’) to stay with the bereaved duo whilst they get back on their feet. Neither Evelyn nor India were aware of their smouldering and mysterious relative until he arrived at the funeral and soon they both become attracted to him in symbiotic repulsive and uncontrollable ways, with its fairytale, fable like qualities Stoker is clearly a film yearning for metaphysical, symbolic density, and although this is achieved its at the expense of any emotional or motivational integrity.
It’s always fascinating to see foreign filmmakers of note transplanted to the meat grinder of the Hollywood studio system as it stands today, either blessed or cursed with all the fantastic toys and tools which Welles famously called the ‘the best playground a boy could imagine’, with a crop of internationally established star personas to populate their canvasses and first class special effect artisans to ameliorate their imaginations, their oblique glances at material and customs just prove to be a rejuvenating shot in the arm for ghettoized genres. Stoker is very much a Park Chan-wook film, with its fuliginous look and off-kilter production design, its symbolic use of colour and careful arrangement of visual symbol, it’s lurking and occasional very literal iconography, the problem as with his other films is that he erects this wonderfully fertile environment around which the plot and storyline waddle around in pregnant expectation, but the story and plotting are stillborn, particularly in Stoker with its rather botched and confusing finale. Park clearly has a fascination with buried secrets and obscured pasts which are concealed throughout his work, but like his indigenous Korean work a visual brilliance and atmospheric aura can’t completely overwhelm inadequate narratives and philosophical obscurity. At times I was reminded of Twin Peaks with a visit to an Edward Hoppersque diner, the next the entire incredulity stretching plot is revealed in a dramatically neutered flashback.
Like Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt which screenwriter Wentworth Gillman has confirmed was his core inspiration the film revolves around a young girls coming of age and her blossoming sexuality, what Hitch had to cheerily allude and suggest back in the Forties doesn’t require any coy metaphors in todays permissive era, but the film keeps these elements submerged in the metaphorical background and dresses India’s tale as a gothic fantasy, giving weight to Wasikowska’s disaffected and elfin performance. Some images breed symbolic succor but we never uncover the core of these characters or caress their passionate drives, there is no sustenance to gnaw upon as to why India or Evelyn would surrender to Uncle Charley’s incestuous charms other than them being up for a bit of how’s your (dead) father. Goode is effective enough as the creepy Uncle who smolders with sexually laced dialogue and predatory wandering eyes, Kidman is her usually highly strung Icemaiden who might just thaw under the hands of a ravishing beast. The always terrific Clint Mansell conducts a lightly lurking score which soundtracks India’s psychological lethargy, although one admires his aural tinkering one speculates on just how original hire Philip Glass could have enhanced the films melodic qualities. As I watched this movie with a creeping, slippery disinterest I was struck by the thought that this is the kind of film that Tim Burton should be making if he ever grows up and decides to make films for adults, and takes the plunge in optioning partially original material beyond the four quadrant marketing holy grail, although he seems to have completely abandoned that future path of breadcrumbs through the dangerous woods. In the meantime fans of brooding, suburban fairy tales will have to make do with the intriguing yet isolating seduction of Stoker, another rung in the ascent of Mia Wasikowska’s ascent to stardom.
Park Chan-wooks first English language movie has a trailer and it looks like….something;
In other news the LFF screenings are stacking up in a holding pattern after todays double-bill, I’m taking a day off tomorrow to catch up on a few reviews before no less than four movies planned for Friday, including an unmissable Hitchcock restoration premiere. The other good news is that next week’s schedule has just been circulated, with Rust & Bone front and centre for a Monday matinée. I could do with some Looper like time manipulation already….