The Handmaiden – LFF Review

the-handmaiden-1

Park Chan-wook is back! End of review.

For his next trick the South Korean cinematic force of nature is tackling source material closer to these British shores. The acclaimed director of the Vengeance trilogy, and more recently Thirst and Stoker, has adapted Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith for the big screen and in doing so moved the narrative from Victorian England to 1930s Korea under Japanese colonial rule. A con man (Ha Jung-woo) recruits a young pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) to work as the handmaiden to a young heiress (Kim Min-hee) in the hopes of convincing her to marry the con artist rather than her own uncle (Cho Jin-woong) to whom she is betrothed. Once wed the heiress will be confined to an insane asylum and the two criminal elements will split the spoils. That’s the plan at least…

As anyone familiar with Fingersmith will know there is more than one twist in this tale and Chan-wook stays true to the twisting nature of the original if not the entire plot. Where the two diverge is yours to discover. With his adaptation Chan-wook has created a dark fable of lust, betrayal, and a dark humour that flows beneath everything else. Whether creating a scene of extreme torture or sapphic indulgence to rival Blue is the Warmest Colour, Chan-wook never loses a charming sense of fun and as such the sex and violence never feels exploitative. As to whether the erotic scenes suffer from the male gaze is something for someone with different eyes to mine to judge.

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That said the film is undeniably on the side of the female characters as it takes its point of view of events from the heiress and pickpocket, while all the male characters are varying degrees of vile and misogynistic. Twisty plot aside The Handmaiden is about two women finding solace in one another as they struggle to fight the oppression of the men in their lives; men who value their penises above all else. I don’t know if I would go so far as to call The Handmaiden a feminist film but it villianises men as much as it objectifies the women. Two wrongs make a right. Right guys? Excuse me while I wring my hands for loving this film.

Kim Min-hee, last seen in Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, brings complex layers to an elegant woman with a myriad of secrets bubbling underneath, and dares us to judge a character based on first impressions alone. As for Kim Tae-ri; what a debut! Having never done a feature before she tackles a joint lead role which is challenging not just emotionally but physically. “Brave” performance tropes aside the role of the pickpocket/handmaiden requires physical comedy chops alongside the dramatic demands. The whole film rests on these two woman and they are what makes the film work so well.

Overall Chan-wook has made a gorgeous film that is a real treat to watch. Everything from the cast, to the production design, to the subtitles in two colours to help you discern what language is being spoken, everything has been meticulously put together. Some might say that the film is too long at almost two and a half hours but when you’re loving a film this much why would you want it to end?

Beautiful, funny, sexy, and dark. Perfect.

Can You Hate the Artist and Still Love the Art?

Take the Money and Run

The residents of the film world and beyond are currently shouting at one another in an indignant tone as lines are drawn and actors, pundits, and the general public decide to side either with Woody Allen or his estranged daughter Dylan Farrow over allegations that the former sexually assaulted the latter when she was seven. For a sampling of both sides of the argument I invite you to read Farrow’s open letter and Robert Weide’s defence of Allen. The situation has reached fever pitch and online discussions have reached the point where not having an opinion is seen as just as harmful as taking the wrong side.

I am not going to even attempt to touch on choosing a side in this matter. What I am going to talk about will probably seem trivial in the circumstances but after all this is an arts blog and not a place to debate who is or isn’t guilty of a crime. I hope that discussing this does not come across as ignoring the real issue at stake or seem offensive to anyone. The whole situation is a distressing one and certainly doesn’t need me weighing in and wielding an uninformed opinion. What I want to focus on is the very first sentence of Dylan Farrow’s open letter:

What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?

Farrow poses the question at the start and end of her letter in the hope that we will reconsider whether you can indeed have a favourite film if the director is indeed a sex offender. Frankly… I don’t know. What you are reading is not an opinion piece about separating a person from their work nor a passionate essay about the intrinsic link between and artist and their output. Instead I am genuinely asking what has been running through my head the past few days; can you hate an artist and still love their art?

If you read any number of comment threads tearing the reputation of Woody Allen apart then the answer is a simple “no”. For those who believe that Woody Allen sexually assaulted his infant daughter the very concept of a favourite Allen film is invalid and his entire body of work is never to be seen again. In reality Hollywood in particular has a long history of sidestepping an individual’s indecencies when their artistic merit is seen as substantially worthwhile.

Roman Polanski was a well-respected director in the 1960s and 70s and received Oscar nominations for the Mia Farrow starring Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and Chinatown in 1974. In February 1978 Polanski was to be found fleeing America having plead guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Surely his career was over at this point? A scandal of this magnitude and moral repulsiveness is not the sort of thing someone can come back from.

Three years later and Roman Polanski was nominated for his third Oscar for Best Director and since fleeing the US he has made a total of twelve films, won an Oscar, and worked with top draw actors such as Kate Winslet as little as three years ago. While Polanski is unable to ever work in Hollywood or risk inevitable arrest he continues his career as an acclaimed director. For the most part the world seems to be able to separate the man from his work and celebrate his undeniable skill as a director far apart from any acts committed in his past.

Roman Polanski is not alone in this category of artists who are vilified and celebrated in the same breath. Alfred Hitchcock is one of cinema’s most applauded auteurs but only last year we were treated to two dramas about the directing giant. The first was the TV movie The Girl in which Hitchcock was portrayed as a predatory, vindictive, and downright abusive figure who we were encouraged to revile as much as we used to revere him. Mere months later, in the more light-hearted and fluffy cinematic release Hitchcock, Alfred is shown as a more loveable figure; one whose perversions are little more than some jolly voyeurism and nothing to get too upset about. Alfred Hitchcock films remain amongst the greatest films ever made. If he truly were a monster would this change a thing?

The Oscars are Hollywood’s biggest platform for celebrating the achievements of the English-speaking film community and it is at this ceremony that Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine could potentially win three awards next month. But if you cast your gaze further down the list of nominees you will notice that he is not the only celebrated artist with allegations sitting against their name. We have the actor questioned by police after allegedly assaulting his mother and sister, a director who was accused of groping his teenage transgender niece, and a second actor constantly surrounded by rumours of domestic assault. It doesn’t seem to matter what you are accused of, when the films you make are good enough then all is forgiven.

I myself am no different. When debating recently the various merits of Blue is the Warmest Colour the topic of the alleged mistreatment of actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux at the hands of the tyrannical director Abdellatif Kechiche arose and I found myself saying that no matter how cruelly the cast and crew were treated it didn’t take away from how beautiful the resulting film was. But was I right to say that?

Much as I want to separate the alleged actions of a film-maker from the films he makes, should I be doing this? When an artist makes a work of art in any medium they are putting a piece of themselves in it. The art is inherently linked to the artist so can you really praise one and prosecute the other? I have a confession to make: I have a great love for the films of Woody Allen but in light of the ongoing allegations I don’t know if that is OK any more.

I need answers, can you hate the artist and still love the art?

2014 Oscar Nominations Not-Remotely-Live Blog

Oscar Nominations

I wasn’t quite organised enough to have a liveblog up and running when the Oscar nominations were announced this lunchtime but I made myself a post so I’m damn well going to put something in it. I will forgo listing all the nominations as they can be found everywhere else on the internet. The important facts are these…

  • Gravity and American Hustle lead the pack with ten nominations each, closely followed by 12 Years a Slave with nine. Nebraska has a pleasing six nominations and Her continues to taunt me with five nominations and a UK release that has yet to arrive.
  • Judi Dench and Meryl Streep are competing for the Best Actress award, a title that Dench has never won and one that Streep has taken twice and been nominated for fourteen(!!!) times.
  • The only nomination for Saving Mr. Banks is for its music and this upsets me greatly.
  • Blue is the Warmest Colour has completely failed to be nominated for Best Foreign Film and that is a tragedy as it clearly is the best foreign film and if you ask me the best film overall. So there.
  • Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa has been nominated for an Oscar. Take that in. It’s for Best Makeup and Hairstyling but still, it just feels wrong. Weirdly American Hustle is not nominated in this category despite the hair being the best bit.
  • David O Russell and American Hustle continue to rhyme and sound incredibly satisfying.
  • Jonah Hill has received his second Oscar nomination. Who would have thought he’d ever be an Oscar contender considering his former career in broad comedies? Ditto for Matthew McConaughey who has moved so far away from his Romantic Comedy background he is barely recognisable.
  • Best Live Action Short is not normally a category I can comment on but somehow I have seen nominee The Voorman Problem twice and it is worthy of the win. The short stars Martin Freeman as a psychiatrist called to a prison to deal with an inmate who is convinced that he is God (Tom Hollander). It is short, clever, funny, and has famous people in it.
  • There are really only three nominees for Best Film. For the past three years I have seen the winner of the top prize at the previous year’s London Film Festival therefore this year’s winner must come from the films I saw back in October. The real list of nominees is as follows:

12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her

Nebraska
Philomena
The Wolf of Wall Street

Let’s meet back here on 2nd/3rd March to discuss the winners.

BAFTA Rising Star Nominees 2014

Bafta Rising Star Nominees 2014

This year’s BAFTA Film Awards will be presented on the 16th of February and there is one award in particular that never fails to catch my attention; the Rising Star Award. The unique nature of the award is that the winner is voted for by the public and this is both intriguing and to the awards detriment. The award will sometimes go to the nominee with the biggest fan base or highest profile rather than an up and coming talent that could really do with the encouragement.

Yesterday BAFTA announced the five nominees as selected by a panel of industry experts and I’m here to pass judgement on them and see who I think should win.

Dane Dehaan

Dane Dehaan
Dehaan first grabbed my attention with his Season 3 role in Gabriel Byrne’s dialogue heavy TV epic In Treatment as the troubled teen Jesse D’Amato. Since then he has perfected the role of troubled genius in films such as Chronicle and Kill Your Darlings. Dehaan managed to ground the supernatural Chronicle and make it all the more real by putting in a truly threatening performance. I may not have enjoyed Kill Your Darlings but it certainly wasn’t Dehaan’s fault. His next major appearance is taking over the role of Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (a casting spookily predicted by Stephen on this blog) and I for one am quietly excited. As someone with some solid but low-key performances under his belt and more mainstream fare up ahead I can easily see what makes Dehaan a candidate for the Rising Star Award.

Will Poulter

Will Poulter
Oh Will, where did it all go wrong? Six years ago Poulter debuted in the adorable British film Son of Rambow directed by Garth Jennings in which Will played the role of Lee Carter. Since then he has taken on a few TV roles, appeared as Eustace in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and acted in the critically acclaimed Wild Bill. Most recently he has undone all that good work by helping to make the atrocity that was We’re the Millers. Sorry Will but I really can’t get past that film.

Lupita Nyong’o

Lupita Nyong’o
Lupita Nyong’o has a 100% flawless record of five-star films by virtue of the fact that her sole cinematic release to date is the, as yet unreleased in the UK, 12 Years a Slave. In this future Oscar winner (trust me) Lupita plays a young slave woman who is separated from her child and suffers the worst brutality seen in the film. As an attractive young woman she suffers from the amorous advances of her “owner” and the jealous rages of his wife all while grieving for her absent child. Nyong’o’s performance is striking and heartbreaking and I’d say she deserved this award if I didn’t already think she was on her way to the Best Actress Oscar instead.

Léa Seydoux

Léa Seydoux
Léa Seydoux has been working solidly in French cinema since 2006 and made a few appearances in high-profile American fare including Midnight in Paris, Inglourious Basterds, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. What has really brought Seydoux to everyone’s attention is her supporting role in the epic love story (and my favourite film of 2013) that is Blue is the Warmest Colour. Much as I loved her performance in the film I can’t help but think that her co-star Adèle Exarchopoulos is more deserving of a position on this list. Exarchopoulos carried the film on her shoulders and has a much less developed CV than Seydoux. All that said I am very excited to see where Léa’s career goes next particularly with her role in the remake of La belle & la bête coming up later this year.

George Mackay

George Mackay
Sadly, despite his recent role in the Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith, I have no idea who George Mackay is. Perhaps this anonymity makes him the perfect nominee for an award aimed at encouraging a burgeoning career or perhaps I just need to widen my cinematic horizons so that an actor’s entire career doesn’t pass me by again. Sorry George!

For me the winner has to be Dane DeHaan. Despite having a good crop of films behind him DeHaan has not yet become a household name and has put in a series of solid performances in smaller films. The others in the list have either risen too much in my opinion or made one bad film with Jennifer Aniston that i can’t get past. Not naming any names obviously. George Mackay prove me wrong, I’ll be sure to watch How I Live Now when it comes out on DVD.

Disagree with me? Of course you do! Have your say by voting over at the Rising Star Award page.

Top Ten Films of 2013

Top Ten Films 2013

2013 has been an above average year for films. 2013 is an excellent vintage for a film to have. In the future you can pull a DVD off the shelf, note that it was made in 2013 and be assured that there is a good chance you are buying a top quality film. Film works like wine, right?

I have agonised over the list below; there were so many films I wanted to mention but had to leave out in favour of films that either tried something a little different or spoke to me personally. I’ve tried to have a good mix of genres and styles and yet the majority seem to feature an in-depth look at human emotions, three have pivotal scenes involving a piano, and two were shot in black & white. On with the list:

10 – The Comedian

10 - The Comedian

Funnily enough this was the hardest position on the list to decide on as whatever film doesn’t make this slot doesn’t make the list at all. In the end I settled on Tom Shkolnik’s debut film about a young man living in London. Protagonist Ed is unsatisfied in his job and his love life and finds himself a little lost in his life in London. The film has no strict plot but instead features authentic feeling improvised scenes and simply offers a glimpse into a short period in the life of a character. I related to the film on a very personal level which earned it a place in my top 10 but which also makes me a little nervous to recommend it. Like another film much higher on this list The Comedian gives us a little peek at human relationships and does it in such a realistic way I couldn’t help but love it. More gushing in my review.

9 – A Field in England

9 - A Field in England

And now for something completely different… Over the past four years Ben Wheatley has made four films and cemented himself in the world of British film as a man who can produce low budget films filled with unbearable tension, extreme violence, and surprisingly real characters. His fourth film took a strange turn as he produced a black & white piece set during the civil war in which all manner of horrors occur in a field in England. The film was released in cinemas and on TV, DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD all on the same day but that is far from the most remarkable thing about it. I couldn’t begin to explain the plot of A Field in England or the relatively tame but somehow harrowing visuals it contains. This is bold, brave British film-making; something we could do with a lot more of.

8 – Breathe In

8 - Breathe In

Two years ago Drake Doremus’ debut film Like Crazy was released and despite it being an impressive first film there was something about it I couldn’t quite get behind. In his follow-up, a story of infidelity and temptation starring Felicity Jones and Guy Pearce, Doremus has utilised his improvisational style to produce a fantastic feature. This is a film of lust and longing, and not being satisfied with the cards life has dealt you. What is most impressive is that Doremus manages to create scenes of incredible sexual tension and sensuality without ever needed to show anything more than a longing look or a gentle touch. Worth an entry on this list for its ability to replace sex scenes with piano duets without losing any of the sexiness.

7 – Philomena

7 - Philomena

2013 has definitely been a great year for films and specifically a great year for Steve Coogan. Four of his films were fighting for a position in my top ten but ultimately I could only allow myself one on the list. Philomena gets this most coveted position for being the only film of the four to bring me to tears. The story of an old woman searching for the son she was forced to give up 50 years ago is a heartbreaking one but the script, co-authored by Coogan, manages to be hilarious too. As we watch the unlikely pairing of Coogan’s uptight journalist and Judi Dench’s kind-hearted and deeply religious pensioner the film explores faith, family, and forgiveness in and even handed and enjoyable way. Ultimately the story of Philomena, deeply based in fact rather than fiction, is not a happy one but she isn’t going to let it get the best of her so neither should you. Full review here.

6 – Stoker

6 - Stoker

Stoker completely passed me by when it had a cinematic release in March of this year but in an effort to fill in some of the gaps in my film watching I caught up with the film over the Christmas break, and I am glad that I did. Stoker is written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller and directed by Korean legend Chan-wook Park and is a stunningly shot gothic thriller. Mia Wasikowska plays a young girl coming of age who has just lost her father and is getting to know her previously unheard of young uncle, Matthew Goode, who comes to stay with her and her mother. The film has strangely vibrant yet artificial looking visuals and some brilliantly arch performances from its leads which allows the film to have its characters behave in a way that is slightly otherworldly. Stoker manages to maintain a strange tension throughout which created a sense that sex or violence could erupt at any moment. This film also features a second sensual scene focusing on a piano duet but things get slightly more extreme, as is so often the case with Stoker. A totally unique modern thriller that Hitchcock wouldn’t be ashamed to have directed.

5 – Saving Mr. Banks

5 - Saving Mr. Banks

At number 5 we have a very personal choice for myself. I really can’t tell if Saving Mr. Banks is actually a good film or just a load of sentimental nonsense as I am so blinded by all the baggage I am bringing to the film. Saving Mr. Banks is the story of the battle between Walt Disney and the author of Mary Poppins P.L. Travers as he tries to obtain film rights for the books from a woman who hates cartoons, musicals, and Dick van Dyke. As someone who grew up on a heavy dose of Julie Andrews singing there is something bizarrely nostalgic about this film set twenty years before I was born. Combine this with another fine performance from Emma Thompson and the result is me in repeated floods of tears at a press screening. If you love Mary Poppins then no doubt you will love Saving Mr. Banks, otherwise I probably wouldn’t bother. Full review here.

4 – Nebraska

4 - Nebraska

Have you ever received a letter telling you that you might have won millions and that you just need to phone a number or go to an address with your prize code to find out? Nebraska is the story of one man (Bruce Dern) who takes the letter seriously. Worrying that his father will try to take the journey to claim his prize alone his son (Will Forte) agrees to drive him there just to make sure he doesn’t die in the process. Along the way they stop off at the old man’s hometown and old family feuds resurface as people are mocking and jealous of the possible windfall in equal measure. Shot in gorgeous black & white Alexander Payne has made another beautiful film, one that shows the quirks of family and how important and frail dignity can be even as you get older. Funny and touching Nebraska is never inauthentic or cloying. Perfect. Full review here.

3 – Behind the Candelabra

3 - Behind the Candelabra

Having declared his retirement from directing films for the cinema Steven Soderbergh went on to direct this biopic of Liberace (Michael Douglas) and the story of his love affair with the initially young Scott (Matt Damon). In the UK we scuppered his plan for retirement by deciding that the film was too good for TV and gave it a cinematic release instead. In Behind the Candelabra Soderbergh has created a gloriously camp retelling of the life of one gloriously camp performer, and the life of an ego so big that he gives his boyfriend plastic surgery so that he can share more of Liberace’s features. Douglas and Damon are both playing completely against type and doing a fabulous job of it but neither are so brilliant as Rob Lowe who plays the taut faced plastic surgeon who can’t so much as close his eyes any more. The whole film is turned up to eleven and is a real joy to watch. Just don’t go expecting any subtle sexy scenes at the piano as Liberace eschews subtlety in favour of glitter, candelabras, and an on-stage limo.

2 – Before Midnight

2 - Before Midnight

We return to the theme of relationships that runs through this list as we reunite with one of cinema’s best couples and the most enduring onscreen romance. Richard Linklater first introduced us to Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) back in 1995 when the two lovers met, spent a night together, and went their separate ways. 9 years later the pair were reunited in Paris and shared one long real-time conversation before leaving us with a cliff hanger. Since 2004 audiences have been left wondering whether Jesse stayed to spend another night with Celine or went back to America to his wife and child. Their love story is continued in Before Midnight as we drop back into their lives as a proper couple with their own children on holiday in Greece. Through a series of conversations we see that Jesse and Celine are still very much in love but that the years have taken their toll on the young romantics and every conversation has an undertone harking back to an argument years in the making. The Before trilogy is always pretentious, funny, and touching and as theatrical as the lengthy conversations might be the performances never stray far from my favourite adjective; authentic. Here we are watching characters we love struggle in their relationship and it is all painfully real.

1 – Blue is the Warmest Colour

1 - Blue is the Warmest Colour

The only thing that can possibly top a brief trip into the relationship of Jesse and Celine is a film that encompasses an entire relationship. Across the three hours we follow French teenager Adèle as she slowly becomes an adult and discovers her own sexuality through initial fumbles with boys and then her life changing romance with the enigmatic Emma. Director Abdellatif Kechiche has come under a lot of criticism for the film since he and the young stars (Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but none of that can do anything to stop the resulting film from being so incredible. As the relationship between Adèle and Emma waxes and wanes we see all facets of their relationship. Yes we see their sex life but we see their snotty, blotchy faced arguments too. We see their initial flirtation in a bar and their tragic post-relationship reunion in a cafe. We see their conflicting family dynamics as Adèle is introduced to Emma’s foodie family as her girlfriend and Emma is invited round to Adèle’s as a friend to enjoy some bland spaghetti. The performances at the center of the film are fantastically raw and, all together now, authentic. At the end of my screening Kechiche and Exarchopoulo came out for a Q&A but I couldn’t stay to watch it for fear of ruining the illusion that the Adèle I had been watching was a living, breathing human being and someone whose most intimate moments I had seen laid bare. This marks the third year in a row that a French film has taken my top film title; they must be doing something right. Full review here.

Top 20 Films of 2011
Top 10 Films of 2012