The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)

In every life a little rain must fall.

In every life a little rain must fall.

(2016) Drama (Magnolia) Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, So-ri Moon, Hae-suk Kim. Directed by Park Chan-wook


What a tangled web we weave, so the saying goes, when we set out to deceive. Deception can take many forms from little white lies to complete fabrications. We can invent ourselves as someone who we are not; we may have the best of intentions or the worst when we assume a different persona. At the end of the day, however, we end up unable to escape the person we actually are.

Sookee (T-r. Kim) is a pickpocket and petty thief in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s. She is part of a criminal gang led by the self-stylized Count Fujiwara (Ha), a con man from humble birth. He has managed to set up Sookee in the position of a handmaiden to a noble Japanese lady living on an extensive estate far from anywhere in the mountain woods of Korea. The Count has designs on the lady to marry her and then have her declared insane so he can inherit her considerable wealth.

Lady Hideko (M-h. Kim) is a virtual prisoner on her estate. Her cruel Uncle Kouzuki (Jo) is a pervert who gets his rocks by having her dress up as a noble Japanese woman of ancient times and reading pornography to he and a group of like-minded friends. Kouzuki intends to wed Hideko soon in order to inherit her considerable wealth as he has none of his own.

Sookee has one job; to convince her new employer that the affections of the Count are genuine and that she would do well to marry him. However, Sookee has a revelation that changes everything and suddenly the players in this very dangerous game reveal that none of them are exactly who they are perhaps perceived to be.

Park, director of the notorious Oldboy, has a thing about pushing boundaries and he shoves quite a few here, although only relatively. He based this loosely on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, transplanting the action from Victorian England to occupation-era Korea. This adds the element of cultural clash to the story, one which is not only welcome but incredibly intriguing.

Park has a terrific visual sense and the cinematography here is downright gorgeous, from the lacquered interiors of Hideko’s strange mansion – constructed by an Anglophile, it has an English main house with a very Japanese wing added on – to the rain and moon shrouded forests of the estate. It is a visually lyrical film, dancing to a beautiful soundtrack by Yeong-wook Jo. I thought the soundtrack elevated the film, although parts were cribbed from The Thin Red Line which is a war movie of a different sort.

Here the war is of sexual tensions and there is plenty of it between the three main characters. The movie is told in three parts; the first and longest is Sookee’s point of view, the second that of Hideko and the third a kind of epilogue. In fact, the movie feels a little bit long but that might be that the first chapter is almost a film in and of itself and the second two chapters are almost added on in feel when you’re watching it but once the film is over you realize the story couldn’t be told any other way and the whole thing makes sense, but you may end up checking your watch a little.

If you do, it won’t be because of the performances of the three main leads. Both of the Kims and Ha generate an enormous amount of heat between them in a strange sort of love triangle; Jo gets to play a Snidely Whiplash-sort of character with an ink-stained tongue and a pervert’s glee in all things sexual. The story takes a number of turns and what really makes it work is that the performances of all of the actors is consistent throughout the varied plot changes and all of the performances make sense.

This is a movie with a good deal of texture; not just in the lush gardens of the estate or the richly decorated interiors but also in the sense that the movie is deeply sensual not just in a prurient way but also in a beautifully sensual way – quite artistic in the use of the naked female body. Some who are easily offended by sexuality will find this abhorrent but I must say that if sex can be art, this is an example of that. The book, which I have not read, utilizes narration from the three main characters; Park delivers that in a masterful way that simply reinforces that he is one of the world’s most exciting and pre-eminent directors. At this point, he is a director I’d go out of my way to view his film. There aren’t a lot of directors I’d say that for.

In many ways this is a beautiful movie and in many ways this is an ugly movie. The two often co-exist side by side in real life as well. One can’t have one without the other, after all. You may well find this a beautiful film to look at, and it is. You may well find this an ugly movie to consider, and it is. It is at the nexus of the two that we often find great art, and it is.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful cinematography and shot construction throughout the film. The musical score is just amazing. The performances among the three leads are strong throughout. The film is quite textured.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s just a little bit too long, or at least I perceived it to be.
FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of graphic sex and nudity as well as some profanity (much of it sexually oriented), rape and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Because two different languages (Korean and Japanese) are spoken in the film, the subtitles are in White (Korean) and Yellow (Japanese) so that English-speaking
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
NEXT: The Siege of Jadotville


A Messy Job


           Penelope St. Clair looked right out of place in the sawmill. In her city finery, said to be directly from Paris and the best that the Pacific Northwest could offer in 1898, she was prim, proper and decidedly gentrified. Her father, Andrew St. Clair, had emigrated from Scotland and had amassed a great wealth in land with holdings from Washington State throughout the Rockies as far east as the Dakotas, as far south as Northern California and as far north as British Columbia. Most of his land was full of virgin timber.

            Elliott James McBride, also known as E.J., might have been a handsome man if he could have disguised the avarice in his eyes. He owned a number of lumber mills and his timber had not only built the railroads but also many of the homes and businesses of Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. The arrangement between himself and the daughter of Andrew St. Clair would have been mutually beneficial to both families to say the least.

            Except that Penelope didn’t love E.J. McBride, not in the least. She was reasonably sure he felt nothing for her either, other than being the conduit for further riches for himself. Certainly he wanted her body for his own nefarious purposes; not merely to create an heir for his fortune, but for his own twisted, perverse pleasures which she, as a lady, could scarcely imagine. He proposed time after time; time after time she refused. He entreated her father to make her see reason, but Andrew St. Clair doted on his only child and also refused.

            E.J. McBride was not so easily rebuffed however. He was a self-made man who arrived in the Northwest with a fortune of three dollars exactly. This he had parlayed into the largest single land operation in Big Sky country. There were those who thought that McBride should become governor of the great state of Washington, and there were even those who whispered that he might make a fine President someday.

            He tried flowers. He attempted to give her the most luscious chocolate candy that could be imported from Belgium. He took her out for the finest meals that Seattle could offer. He bought her jewelry, clothing, gifts of every manner. She refused them all. He tried to convince her using every flattery he could think of. She saw it for what it was – the attempt of a desperate man to woo an unwilling woman. She also noticed the way he looked at her, not with the callow affection of a gentleman but with the undisguised lust of a bounder. She would have none of it.

            At last E.J. McBride ran out of patience. He wanted the lumber contract to be sure, but his pride had been hurt. His desire for the timber and for the bride had become obsession and the obsession had turned ugly. One dark night, he had followed Penelope St. Clair down to the park as she went for an evening stroll with a young man she was sweet on, a former Canadian Mountie named Gordon Dudley. E.J., never one to fight fairly, delivered a blow to the cranium of Gordon Dudley with a base-ball bat which knocked the handsome young Seattle police officer out cold. Over the nose and mouth of the screaming Penelope he placed a lace handkerchief literally dosed with ether. Her eyes rolled up in the back of her head and she fainted into the villain’s arms.

            He quickly carried her to his waiting carriage and put her inside, closing the shades on the windows, then quickly had his man drive them out of town before any sort of alarm could be raised. They drove through the night, the horses all a-lather by the time dawn came and they arrived at one of E.J.’s sawmills, one that he’d built in anticipation of the influx of lumber from Andrew St. Clair’s land, but stood in disuse waiting for the lumber to arrive that now never would.

            He trussed her up to a large piece of wood that the circular buzz-saw would normally cut into 2×4 boards. He used smelling salts to wake her. Penelope felt the fuzzy darkness slowly slip away and the morning light filled her eyes. She was disoriented at first but came to wakefulness and soon realized that something was amiss. “What is this? Where am I?” She espied EJ. standing over her, sneering and twirling his handlebar moustache in that strange affectation that was one of the many reasons she despised him. “I demand that you release me at once! Father shall hear about this and he shall give you a sound thrashing when he does!”

            E.J. McBride laughed soundly and heartily. “I fear that this eventuality shall never happen, my dear. You are in a precarious position, one not suitable for making demands.” She struggled mightily but ultimately, futilely against her bonds. “Untie me at once, you cad! Have you no morals?” Again he laughed heartily. “Why, not a speck Miss St. Clair. How do you think I’ve been so successful?” She growled, having no response for that.

            “Now let me explain what your situation is my dear. I find that I must have you – not only for the sake of my business ventures, but because I am attracted to you in no small way. So your choice is a simple one. Either you agree to marry me, be my loyal wife and the mother of my children, making me the sole heir to your father’s land holdings…or nobody gets you at all.”

            She looked at him with the eyes of a she-cat. “I would never marry you Elliott James McBride, not if you asked me a million times!” If she could have stamped her delicate foot, she would have. but E.J. McBride wasn’t concerned about her tantrums. Those he could handle the way a good husband should – with a right cross to the jaw. No, he was more concerned that she would find a way to run away with that policeman…E.J. McBride wouldn’t allow his wife to humiliate him like that, and at this point he looked at Penelope St. Clair as his bride in all but name. When he looked at her, he imagined their wedding night.

            “You might wish to reconsider that,” he said thoughtfully as he walked to the controls of the buzz-saw. “If you choose to deny me what is rightfully mine, I will make sure you become the property of no-one. I will saw you into pieces and scatter them around the Northwest where nobody could find them. Then, I will buy the land outright from your grieving father for pennies on the dollar, particularly when he is accused of your murder.”

            She looked at him with slack-jawed horror. “Have you no shame, sir? Have you no decency whatsoever?” He smiled cheerfully. “None at all,” he said lightly. “I find it impedes the digestion.”  She glared at him. “You mock me, sir!” His expression darkened at that. “I mock you? I…mock…you? It is you, Madame, who mock me! You with your constant and tiresome refusals of my heartfelt proposals, you with your pretense and your arrogance. I may be a self-made man Madame but I assure you that I am, after all that, a man. Now do you wish to marry me or do you wish to die?”

            She regarded him as she would a venomous snake. “I’d rather die than marry a poisonous scoundrel such as yourself.” He shrugged. “Suit yourself,” he said and with a dramatic flourish he turned the saw on.

            The board she was affixed to began to travel by conveyor belt to the saw blade which whirred with mechanical malignancy. Penelope screamed once and turned to her captor. “You wouldn’t dare!” she yelled, more in bravado than in anything else. A slight smile upturned his lips. “I seem to be doing…just that,” he said simply and leaned back against the far wall to watch.

            Penelope began to struggle but at the same time she had faith in the Almighty that he would send someone to rescue someone as virtuous as herself. Perhaps Gordon would come to her aid. Yes, arriving on a shining white steed, his auburn curls glittering in the morning light as he dispatched the bounder E.J. McBride with startling ease. Yes, in mere moments he would be leaping through the door like a gazelle, ready to give Mr. McBride a sound thrashing, one richly deserved.

            She inched closer and smiled smugly. “I’ll be rescued,” she told McBride and he shrugged, smiling. “Perhaps” was all he said and that in a nonchalant tone. She scowled. “My Gordon will come and get me.” E.J. McBride snickered. ‘”I find that highly unlikely,” he said with a malevolent grin. Penelope looked at him with haughty disdain. “Sinners like you always get their comeuppance in the end,” she informed him. He feigned a shocked look and said “Do we? I haven’t so far.”

            He chuckled and Penelope looked nervously at the blade that was now close enough that she could feel the wood chips flying from it, stinging her cheek. “Now enough of this nonsense Mister McBride, stop this at once and release me. You will not profit from this venture.” He laughed heartily. “I already have, my dear. Just seeing you put in your place will be priceless.”

            She began to panic now. The blade was mere inches away and she could feel the blast of warm air from its whirling teeth as she drew closer. “Mister McBride, I must insist you stop this charade at once. I’m getting quite frightened and I want to go home.” He shook his head no. “Too late for that Miss St. Clair. Perhaps you should have taken me seriously to begin with.”

            She could feel the blade cutting strands of her blonde hair and she began to shriek in fear. “STOP THIS! STOP IT! I’LL MARRY YOU, I PROMISE I’LL DO WHATEVER YOU WANT DEAR GOD HELP ME” Her pleas turned into wordless shrieks as the blade made contact with her flesh. Blood from her scalp spattered on the walls as she wriggled in furious waves of fear trying to break free. Given great strength by her fear, she nearly succeeded in pulling her left hand from its bindings but now it was too late. The blade of the saw cut through the bone of her skull and into her brain.

            Bits of grey matter and flesh chunked against the walls of the mill and E.J. McBride felt obliged to move lest his suit get ruined by the gore. Now her screams were guttural and choked with blood as her body twitched and spasmed as her brain began to die and the neural endings were stimulated. Her bowels voided as the screaming stopped, her lovely eyes staring sightlessly as the saw cut through her ocular nerves and the eyeballs plopped to the floor like an overripe piece of fruit.

            The blood really began to gush as the blade sawed through her carotid artery and down along her spine as her body began to fall away, split in two. He watched in fascination as the blade cut through ribs, organs and flesh with ease although he thought with annoyance that the blade would have to be changed after this; the bones were much harder than the soft wood that would be going through here now that he would get St. Clair’s land.

            At last the saw made its way through her pubis and through, cleanly slicing the heiress in half. The show over, he went downstairs and called his man up to finish the gruesome task. The remains of the girl would be sawed into smaller chunks, then thrown in the river where the bears and fish would no doubt dispose of it.

            He looked at the blood-soaked walls of the mill and sighed. Someone would have to clean this mess up before he could bring workers here to work the lumber. Perhaps there were a few Chinamen he could buy who would get the job done. Making money, as with romance, could be messy work.

The Brothers Bloom

The Brothers Bloom

Now that's a fine how-da-ya-do!

(2009) Offbeat Caper Comedy (Summit) Adrian Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi, Robbie Coltrane, Maximillian Schell, Ricky Jay (voice), Zachary Gordon, Max Records, Andy Nyman. Directed by Rian Johnson

When you’re a con man, there is no real life. There is no trust, there is nothing that isn’t scripted down to the finest detail, there isn’t anything really exciting. That’s the way it’s done, at least, by this brother team.

Brothers Stephen (Ruffalo) and Bloom (Brody) are con artists, and they would tell you there is considerable art in what they do. For Stephen, the ultimate con is where everyone gets what they want; for Bloom, he just wants a life that is unscripted, one he can call his own – one that isn’t quite so predictable. Obviously, he hasn’t lived the life the rest of us lead.

We see them as youngsters in foster care, having been thrown out of every reputable foster home in the state of New Jersey – that’s about 38 of them back in the day (Sha-zing!) when young Stephen (Records) organized the first con starring his brother (Gordon) in an effort to get him to socialize. Twenty years later and Stephen is still trying to get his brother to be less socially awkward.

Now they are accompanied by Bang Bang (Kikuchi), a mostly silent Japanese demolitions expert who excels in making things blow up real good. For Bloom, however, the rose has lost its shine. He is tired of the game, tired of the life, tired of not knowing who he is. He wants out. As is de rigueur for con films, this is to be their last job, even though Stephen still delights and revels in the life.

The mark is Penelope Stamp (Weisz), an agoraphobic heiress who is bored bored bored with her life, so much so that she collects hobbies like juggling chainsaws on a unicycle, skateboarding, break dancing and performing unnecessary breast enlargements on alcoholic women. Okay, the last one wasn’t in the movie but she may well have done it. After a carefully orchestrated encounter with Bloom turns into a near-death experience, she gets roped into his world hook line and sinker.

And what a world it is, replete with vaguely threatening sorts (Coltrane as the Curator) and out-and-out threatening sorts (Schell as Diamond Dog, the mentor to the Brothers and now a rival) and, of course, exotic Eastern European locations. The issue becomes that Bloom begins to fall in love with the mark, and how can you con someone when you care about them?

Director Johnson debuted in 2005 with Brick, a kind of film noir hardboiled detective movie set in a modern California high school. Although Da Queen didn’t like it much, I respected it for its cadences, the obvious love of the source material and the imaginative genre-bending that was done. There are some of those elements here as well.

Brody is making a career out of the sad sack romantic, and nobody does it better. He’s not really the sweetest person on earth nor is he the handsomest, but he always seems endearing enough to charm the pants off (literally) nurturing young women. Ruffalo gets to play a very meaty part that doesn’t look like it so much on the surface, but he imbues Stephen with enough quirks and just enough compassion to make him really compelling by film’s end.

Think of Johnson stylistically as a cross between Wes Anderson and David Mamet; I’d say overall the tone of the movie combines Mamet’s House of Games with Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Anyone who knows these movies will either be straining at the leash to go see The Brothers Bloom based on that description or will be running for the nearest exit.

I get it; the movie is quirky and offbeat which can be a turn-off for mainstream moviegoers who like their movies pre-packaged with predictable storylines, well-known actors and Hollywood endings. This ain’t for you, folks; this is for those who love to be surprised and pulled every which way at the movies. This doesn’t have the wallop of The Sting but it does keep you guessing throughout the movie until you don’t know which way is up, which way is down or which way to the popcorn stand. If you’re headed that way, pick me up a bag with extra butter. If I’m going to chow down on The Brothers Bloom, I might as well go all the way.

WHY RENT THIS: Johnson is a phenomenal talent behind the camera and the movie may be quirky but it is ultimately endearing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone of the movie is offbeat and American audiences don’t do offbeat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a touch of foul language, some brief violence and a bit of implied sensuality but overall nothing most kids haven’t already seen before. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The various hobbies “collected”  by Penelope in the montage, actress Rachel Weisz learned to do every single one of them.


BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on an unreported production budget; although this is an indie as it gets, chances are it didn’t make any money.


TOMORROW: Righteous Kill