The Handmaiden – LFF Review

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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.

BFI London Film Festival 2016

London Film Festival 2016

This site thrives on one 12 day event that occurs every year in October; the BFI London Film Festival. The festival is now in its 60th year and we are in our 7th year of covering the film bonanza in as much detail as we can without actually losing our minds. Each year the films get better and better, I see more and more films, and I get less and less sleep.

On Thursday the line-up for this year’s event was announced and I have gone through the various strands and pulled out a film for each that really has me excited. As for my overall list of films I want to see… I am currently trying to get that down to double digits.

Galas - Free Fire

Free Fire

The Gala films tend to be the hardest tickets to get your hands on but are also the most likely to get a cinema release so I advise you look elsewhere for gems at the festival. That aside I am desperate to catch this year’s closing film Free Fire as it unites the fearless Brie Larson with revolutionary Ben Wheatley. I’ve seen three Larson films (1, 2, 3) and two of Wheatley’s (1, 2) at previous festivals and cannot wait to get my eyeballs on this bloody, funny, and no doubt dazzling action comedy from a filmmaker like no other. Amy Jump has written a 1970s American crime drama shot just outside Brighton which looks as farcical as it does violent. Bring it on.

Love - The Son of Joseph

The Son of Joseph

Back in 2011 we found ourselves very briefly delving into a surreal and stylised world of Portuguese cinema. The film that ended this baffling cinematic education was The Portuguese Nun. I’m almost certain that we enjoyed it. That film’s director, Eugène Green, is back with a French film about a young man searching for his father. I guarantee that this will be a unique film that will be either tedious, hilarious, or a delirious mixture of both.

Debate - Lo and Behold Reveries of the Connected World

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

Werner Herzog is the only documentarian that has both appeared as a baddie in Jack Reacher and as an estate agent in Parks and Recreation. So great is the caricature surrounding Herzog sometimes I forget that he is actually a skilled filmmaker who is not afraid to offer up his opinion and produces works of lyrical beauty. His latest is an exploration of our connected world; looking at how the internet has affected our real world personal relationships. Apparently it includes the line, “Can your dishwasher fall in love with your refrigerator?”. Sold.

Laugh - Lost in Paris

Lost in Paris

My favourite film of 2012 was a strange Belgian comedy called The Fairy which starred a limber comedic duo like nothing I had seen before. In their latest they play a couple who find one another in Paris and go on a series of absurd adventures. Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel thrive on genuinely funny physical comedy that relies on flexibility, ingenuity, and impeccable timing. I will not be missing this.

Dare - The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook has brought us Korean classics including Thirst and The Vengeance Trilogy before impressing with his English language triumphs Stoker and Snowpiercer. Now he has taken the English novel Fingersmith back to his native South Korea to create an erotic and stylish period thriller that apparently involves some amazing wallpaper. No other director can wring so much tension from so little so I can only imagine what he does with this saucy source material.

Thrill - City of Tiny Lights

City of Tiny Lights

A crime thriller set in contemporary London starring Riz Ahmed and Billie Piper. This leapt out at me having watched Billie Piper give a career defining performance in Yerma at the Young Vic last week and feeling the need to double-check that she really is the incredible actress I saw that night. With a plotline involving a radical mosque, multiculturalism, and commercial development City of Tiny Lights sounds like a ripe and topical slice of modern noir set in the city I love.

Cult - The Void

The Void

There are numerous horrors I am keen to lose my composure to at the festival but the one that I keep coming back to is this throwback from Canada. Said to include the influence of John Carpenter and classic practical effects along with knowing nods to frighteners of the past The Void looks to be the perfect way for me to lose a few nights’ sleep.

Journey - Two Lovers and a Bear

Two Lovers and a Bear

Starring two of the most underrated and talented young actors working today, Dane DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany, Two Lovers and a Bear brings us magical realism in the Arctic. The two titular lovers are trying to overcome their childhoods in a remote and isolated town. Presumably a bear shows up at some point too.

Sonic - London Town

London Town

Imagine a time of social, political, and racial unrest under a Tory Prime Minister. Now stop thinking about last month and throw your mind back to 1979. Representing the festival strand dedicated to music we have a British comedy drama following a young teenager struggling with family life after his mother leaves the family home. What will help him get through this troubled time? Punk of course!

Family - Phantom Boy

Phantom Boy

At a film festival there are no BBFC certificates and as such there is no guarantee that the animated film you have chosen to see will not feature graphic sexual content. Thankfully the festival has the Family strand which is the only safe place for the young or prudish. Leo is a sick boy trapped in hospital who discovers he can leave his body and fly around like a phantom. A surreal animation about a new type of superhero.

Experimentia - Have You Seen My Movie

Have You Seen My Movie?

I am wary of the Experimenta strand as the films veer away from narrative cinema and towards pure art. For a novice like me this can be a challenging experience and writing about it is almost impossible. I get an abusive email roughly once every six months from one artist whose work I didn’t enjoy back in 2013. A film my brain might be able to comprehend is Have You Seen My Movie? which consists of a two-hour montage of scenes from other films that either feature people going to the cinema or in the act of making film themselves. How can this last for so long? Will it be enjoyable or tedious? This is the joy of Experimenta; you have to take the plunge and risk being proven wrong.

Treasures - Born in Flames

Born in Flames

Truly embracing the risk I am even tempted by a film that straddles both the Experimenta strand and the Treasures collection. In the latter group are older films that have been remastered or simply need to be revisited, perhaps having gained greater relevance since their initial release. This example is a slice of 80s feminist science fiction in which women never gained equality with men and so turn to violent revolution to fight for what is rightfully theirs. Anyone mocking SJWs online might want to watch their step.

The festival runs 5th – 16 October 2016 and tickets go on sale 8th September for BFI members and 15th September for everyone else.