The Handmaiden: Shifting Exotic Sands

The Handmaiden

WARNING: The following blog post, like the film itself deals with some very frank and explicit mature themes, sexual and non-sexual and please be noted of that before reading on.

There’s a saying about buses. You wait and wait for the bus which never arrives, and then suddenly two or three or all of them come at once. It’s not Shakespeare, but it constantly resurfaces in my mind. While I try to look at every film on its own terms, I find it humourous than in my life, I should have experienced two films concerned with lesbianism, BDSM themes, and the undercutting of audience expectations in such a short space of time, the first being The Duke Of Burgundy (2014, Dir. Peter Strickland) and now The Handmaiden (2017, Dir. Park Chan-Wook). Of course they’re not two sides of the same coin, but I find the parallel too relevant to pass up.

The Handmaiden is lots of things, most of them shrouded in shadows until they’re suddenly brought out into the light. Primarily, it’s an adaptation of the 2002 novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Taken from its original setting in Victoria era England, it’s replanted in 1930’s colonial Korea under Japanese rule. It gains much from this, allowing the director to fuse his own culture into the film’s DNA, melding quite literally its English heritage and its Asiatic influence into every part of the film. Most prominently in the mansion which the characters inhabit for half of the film, as the English style manor, (which echoes the Manderley estate found in Rebecca (1940, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)) literally has a Japanese inspired wing attached to its side. This, alongside with far more subtle and delicate introductions, shows how impressively a story can be transported across the artistic and cultural boundaries we might unconsciously draw when placing a work into a particular time, a particular history.

One thing The Handmaiden might be is not necessarily timeless, but certainly in that place where it becomes a lot harder to keep track of. It’s world is isolated, enclosed in itself. You could imagine months, years passing in its languid flow and barely noticing. It’s characters are so interested in each other, that everything else falls away beyond their own commitments and desires to each other, or against each other. It’s world is one of suffocating isolated beauty and cruelty in equal measures, like an alluring but poisonous flower.

Another thing The Handmaiden might be is profoundly intelligent, for better and for worse. I find it wryly amusing that in a blog whose name literally means truth, it should be so concerned with a film which is based on so many levels of intimate deception. But the genuine pleasure of watching (more on that later) the film is mainly involved in its careful intricate layers being revealed to you, as your expectations are constantly conned, the nature of the hustle like playing cards with someone using a stacked deck. You may feel cheated at times, furious you have been taken in so completely, but its a tribute to the film’s quiet entrancing power.

One thing The Handmaiden could be is incredibly sensitive, both in its eroticism and its handling of its themes. It’s world is muted and dreamy, and its’ two main inhabitants, the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and the Handmaiden Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) find that fragile blooming of love in a nest of vipers, which Park Chan-Wook displays most intensely in moments small and large. In small moments, a delicate tooth filing while the Lady bathes (much weirder in text form than in the imagery) and in large moments, in intense erotically charged sex scenes. The scenes probably will provoke strong analysis’s  from those who love to politicise film and its makers, but I believe you’ll be hard pressed to discover more genuine and more sensitively crafted scenes of intimacy in film that are this uncovered and open. Furthermore while they’re arguably crafted in a voyeuristic way for the camera, this is integral to that key aspect of cinema, of watching without being seen, all of us Peeping Tom’s and voyeuristically taking part in their relationship, just as the men surrounding them try to do.

The thing The Handmaiden could be about is those power dynamics which take place in those hidden secret realms of men and women, those dark corners where perversions and desires grow in our hearts, which can turn them black and twist and distort those around us to places we don’t even let ourselves imagine, much less speak out loud to each other. It’s opulence, its exquisite surroundings, its beautiful landscapes and obsessively fetishised clothing hide such ugliness underneath, an ugliness which lies in the revelry of pain and the inflicting of it, on themselves or others. Those power dynamics of darkness twist round these characters, and its only through outmaneuvering the black hearts, not by appealing to their better nature that our main protagonists can allow themselves the freedom and the ability to allow something light to grow from their darkness. It’s power dynamics feel horribly real because good doesn’t triumph through its own virtue, it triumphs because it’s guarded, kept secret, kept hidden while its murderers are pitted against each other.

I can’t be completely sure about anything in The Handmaiden, it would be missing the point of the film. What I can say is Park Chan-Wook’s work is elaborately and intricately well crafted, it’s subject matter both emotionally and intellectually strong and twisting and at each level its style is unique and entrancing, even if it might not be to everyone’s taste. There’s a lot of truth in that, even if I can’t be 100% sure of it.

-Alex

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The Handmaiden: Shifting Exotic Sands

Lost In Translation – Translation Errors

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The first time I saw Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003), it was after a 34 hour all nighter. Naturally, I fell asleep about 25 minutes in. But what I had seen during those hallucinatory minutes, drifting in and out of consciousness before falling into slumber, had been enough to enchant me, so that when I awoke, like a fairy tale, I immediately watched the film. Spellbound, it became one of my favourite films, a film of intense subtlety and desires.

Re-watching it again recently on a big screen, reminded me just why I loved it.

Lost In Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides) stars Bill Murray as an ageing middle career actor, Bob Harris, arriving in Japan to shoot an advert for one Suntory Whiskey. Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, a recent graduate from Harvard married to a man she’s not sure about (one of my favourites, Giovanni Ribisi), while Bob’s marriage has arrived at a point in time where the functional has taken over completely. Both of them are alone, both of them in a country they find alien, both of them wanting intensely that they had someone who understands.

All of this becomes accentuated by a gorgeously shot Japan. Credit where credit’s due, Lance Accord cinematography presents a world both stunningly beautiful and incredibly jarring in its complexity and stylistic differences to the Western world. The rich vibrant colours of Japan feel tactile here, subtle but luxurious, and the visual presence of scenes is one of deep intensity, constantly pulling you into the world these characters are in.

One of the things that has been raised about the film is about its portrayal of the Japanese culture, how often it seems like it is played for cheap gags at the expense of the Japanese people, how their isolation relies largely on their inability to integrate or understand the Japanese way of life. Which is a deeply frustrating and misguided criticism, because it seems to stem from such a place of malice. Culture shock is a very real phenomena, and very rarely does one have the opportunity and experience and luck to be truly exposed to another culture in a way that someone who has lived it would understand. The Japan they experience is alien to them because it’s a completely different way of life, and the vast chasm of culture is bridged throughout the film, haphazardly and awkwardly, but bridged because they get out and see some of Japan, even if through the eyes of a foreigner.

Anyway, it is not the film’s primary concern to bridge that gap. The location becomes a character in the film because it helps to visually reinforce and explain the inner turmoil of the two lost characters. If that relies on a construction of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, then that’s precisely the aim and driving message behind the film. The translation errors are not just in the language, or the culture, they’re in the ways we lie to ourselves, lie to each other, warp things around us to help avoid some of the more painful burdens we carry. The film seems to carry a warmth for the land they’re in, and presents many facets of the Japanese way of living, from the traditional (Geisha sequence) to the new at the time (Pachinko Parlor, Arcades) to the isolated bubbles built up in every culture to avoid the homeland’s culture (the Hotel itself, which could be anywhere in the world). To suggest that it relies on making fun of the Japanese people is to miss the point entirely, something cruelly ironic in regards to this film.

Bill Murray is nothing short of a modern enigma, one of those actors who simply is employed time and time again over, simply for his persona but also his ability to act. Half of it seems to stem from being Bill Murray, the other half being his genuine astounding ability to fill the impressions of whatever role he’s in. He is Bob Harris in this film, never once are you plagued by that searing doubt mid film where you go “Oh, that’s Bill Murray playing someone”, he is consistent and constantly believable in an achingly painful role. Exactly the same can be said for Scarlett Johansson, at the time still a relative unknown. I’ve already waxed lyrical about its cinematography, but again the way the frame allows the characters room to breathe, to be mellow, to allow for those natural pauses in dialogue which makes it feel more intimate, more well real.

Finally of course, as all great films, its strength lies in its story. The writing is sincere, honest to the point of painful, as we see how relationships might really fall apart, even for those who live up in ivory towers of wealth and fame and fortune. How the dramas of life often unfold in those subdued, quiet longings rather than those great dramatic explosions we’re so used to. How those relationships we build drift slowly downstream, sometimes into a different current, pulling us away from what we were so sure about moments ago. How our inner worlds only barely peek through at the light on the surface, the attraction growing between them through snatched glances, despite everything surrounding them. It’s a dream, played out away from the reality of the consequences that follow it. The story beyond it is probably filled with pain, heartbreak, probably a messy divorce on both sides (who knows?) But in the moment, it’s a beginning, and it helps to keep in mind the beginnings that our main characters had before with their partners who they’re so dissatisfied with at the time of the story, and that while its painful to acknowledge that things aren’t right anymore, at least for Bob Harris and Charlotte, that’s because they’ve found something that is right.

But who knows, maybe that will get lost in translation too.

-Alex

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Lost In Translation – Translation Errors

Julieta – Melodrama, Not Mellow Women

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Julieta is a deep return into a kind of cinema that has been in the shadows in recent years. It’s got such a deep focus on Julieta herself, her experience in the world and how she reacts to the trials of love, family and the pleasures and pain incurred by both, that it functions in a way I find quite resonant, and more importantly, quite antithetical to the current trend of plot driven, beat driven films. I’m also probably reasonably biased towards the film, because the women concerned in this film are such intimate and resonant portrayals of a kind of women I have had experiences of, being the son of a Portuguese woman, that I find it difficult to have anything other than admiration and affection for the characters in this film.

Julieta doesn’t actually have a villain, or an antagonist of any sorts, perhaps beyond the human condition. Perhaps you can argue Julieta’s depression is her demon, but it still feels rather fake to project that point. If anything, the thing I cannot get over is the ability for the film to feel real. It follows a tale of wholly personal stakes about a Spanish women named Julieta who falls in love, has a child, grows estranged from the child over the mourning of her lover who is caught in a storm, who would not have gone out if Julieta and he (Xoan) had not fought. The rest of the film concerns her looking for her daughter, but it all takes place in flashbacks, so the structure is akin to remembrance and memory, often accompanied by visuals of Julieta writing her story to her daughter.

The flashy point of the film, is where Julieta replaces Julieta, or rather, when Adriana Ugarte (Julieta), a limp melancholic depressive being dried off under a red towel by her daughter and her friend, is replaced by Emma Suaréz (Julieta) who transitions into the role. As a mechanic for showing the repitition and passing of time in a singular person, it’s oddly beautiful and muted. However the film takes an intimate perspective, never expanding beyond Julieta’s experience, never giving us that God’s Eye Perspective(TM) that filmmakers rely on so unconsciously, that ability to make the camera separate from the experience of any one individual character, to tell multiple stories concerning multiple people. Julieta, as per its title, is interested in Julieta. It’s a bold stylistic choice, which I’m sure is key to why its response was not overly celebratory, but it’s one that helps to give the film just the right tinge of personal experience.

Almodóvar has a strong reputation for making films about women, and I think the key thing is perhaps because he has such a strong affection and resounding love for  women and their viewpoints, he simply creates worlds where they are at the center, where their struggles might be sidelined or simply ignored in other narratives, become the full encompassing picture in these works. A strand of thematic DNA. I cannot speak more on this, since I have not seen much of his work. But Julieta fills such a breadth of images, mother, daughter, lover, wife, that the only word for really summing her up is Julieta itself.

Julieta just exudes passion. It’s rich and lush colours, its vibrant characters emoting a world, that of rural Spanish villages, of coastal hardships, of suburbanite living in the inner city. The film’s love affair with the world is channeled through Julieta’s relationships. And in fact, the sufferings that occur in her story of one’s of loving too much, of wanting to protect those near us, of the desperation to keep the one’s we love close to us, where we can see them. The emotional wounds are inflicted by people out of love, and its a sentiment that should be witnessed by others.

It’s easier to accept that hate comes from fear, but its harder to accept that love also comes from hope and fear combined, hate capturing a perverted hope which might wish upon those we dislike vicious and unkind things. But in a painfully honest scene where Julieta confronts Xoan over his amorous adventures with a friend of theirs, Ava, the seas churn under the storm. Xoan’s issue is he loves too much, and therefore cannot be faithful, whereas Julieta’s issue is his infidelity leads her to believe he cannot truly love her enough. A curious paradox, deftly handled.

And the development of it is rather poignant, because rather than a melodramatic caustic explosion, Julieta and Ava stay bonded,  even come closer together after Xoan’s passing. Because life doesn’t separate easily, and they are kept close by a bond they both shared, friendship. It’s not easy to accept that part of their lives, and they struggle with it, pushed down to the depths of the inner seas we carry around with us. The silence only brings more pain and heaviness to bear, but like all under the surface, it’s never known to those outside us until we bring it forth.

The acceptance of painful messy truths brings real melodrama to the film, because it is not contrived and more importantly, its earnest.The trials we may experience in our personal lives may not be much in comparison to the greater issues that consume our greater world, but the intimate burdens we carry with us only get heavier as time passes. This is why Julieta works, because the only true antagonist, when you strip away the layers of life, is the pleasures and pains we cause each other. I love Julieta because Julieta loves, and if this work comes across as messy or incoherent, remember its done from a place of passion and love.

-Alex

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Julieta – Melodrama, Not Mellow Women