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.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Liaisons
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Siege of Jadotville

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New Releases for the Week of November 4, 2016


Doctor StrangeDOCTOR STRANGE

(Disney/Marvel) Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg. Directed by Scott Derrickson

Renowned neurosurgeon Stephen Strange has everything going for him; a thriving practice in Manhattan, a beautiful girlfriend, wealth and privilege. All of that vanishes in an instant when a tragic car accident severely injures his hands and ends his career as a surgeon. Bitter and directionless, he discovers a larger world, one of mystic powers and strange artifacts. That world is under siege by a remorseless villain; Strange, a novice at the mystic arts, must put aside his ego and take up the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme if he is to save the world.

See the trailer, interviews, a featurette and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence)

Hacksaw Ridge

(Summit) Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving. This is the incredible but true story of Private Desmond Doss, an army medic during World War II who believed that while the war was a just one, killing was nonetheless wrong. He refused to abandon his principles and while he enlisted to do his bit while his beliefs got him labeled a coward by his fellow soldiers. Nonetheless he went into battle without a weapon and pulled the wounded from behind enemy lines despite extreme danger to himself. He remains the only conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical War Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images)

The Handmaiden

(Magnolia/Amazon) Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo. This twisted romance from acclaimed South Korean director Chan-wook Park is set in the 1930s and is about a handmaiden who is employed by a beautiful Japanese lady. What the lady doesn’t know is that her handmaiden is secretly involved in a plot to defraud her.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: NR

Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story

(Cinedigm) Trace Adkins, Michelle Harrison, Kim Coates, Judd Nelson. A former stagecoach robber, reformed and trying to live a quiet, peaceful life, is pursued by a vengeful U.S. Marshall who was maimed during a gunfight with the ex-criminal.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Western
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

Trolls

(DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Justin Timberlake, Anna Kendrick, Zooey Deschanel, Russell Brand. In the colorful world of trolls, happiness and optimism reign until the troll village is invaded by hungry Bergens who carry off all the villagers save two – Poppy and Branch, the former the most upbeat troll who ever lived, the latter a curmudgeon who prefers to be left alone. The two mismatched trolls must learn to work together in order to save Poppy’s friends.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, a music video and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)

 

Pick of the Litter – October 2016


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Inferno

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Certain Women

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The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

(Magnolia) Min-hee Kim, Tae Ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo. In colonial Korea of the 1930s, a young Japanese woman lives on a secluded estate and a young Korean girl is assigned to be her handmaiden. Unknown to the lady of the estate, her new servant is actually part of a plot to defraud her of her sizable inheritance. However, the situation soon becomes highly sexually charged as the conman – known only as the Count – becomes entangled with both women. This is the latest from visionary director Park Chan-wook who has given us some of the best movies of the past decade. October 21

Gimme Danger

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