Film review – 아가씨 / The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2017)

Park Chan-wook’s latest release is a twisting psychological thriller steeped in eroticism and oozing class that works its audience brilliantly. The only drawback was that I didn’t have time to see it a second time.

Set in Japan-occupied South Korea, the film tells the story of an elaborate plot to rip-off a rich Japanese heiress named Lady Izumi Hideko (Kim Min-hee), who is living in an extravagant and luxurious mansion under the authoritarian Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong). The plot is being masterminded by a conman calling himself Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), and involves him marrying Lady Hideko and subsequently committing her to an asylum to steal her inheritance. To do this, he brings in Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), who is a professional pick-pocket, to work as Lady Hideko’s handmaiden in order to get close to her and influence her feelings towards the Count.

This fantastic plot is based on English novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters. It is brought to life with perfect execution by director Chan-wook. As is typical of his films, The Handmaiden inhabits a uniquely-realised world that features traditional elements mixed in with gothic undertones. It’s a stunning visual achievement and one that is completely absorbing. 

Central to the plot is Uncle Kouzumi’s outlandish book collection, mainly erotic in nature and all extremely rare. He is producing forgeries of the books but is involving Lady Hideko in highly-exclusive book readings of the most sought-after novels, usually for an all-male audience who each will bid on the books in auctions after the readings. Whilst the forgeries provide an additional reason to hate Kouzumi – other than his generally disgusting appearance and the contents of his mysterious basement – it is the contents of the book that also serve to further the sexual drive of the story.

The scenes where Lady Hideko reads excerpts from the books whilst the audience listens intently are some of the best moments of the film, creating suspense with nothing more than an authoritative delivery from Min-hee and some attentive camerawork.

Indeed, the sly glances and subtle reactions are what makes the acting performances so believable. This is a game of tension, both mentally and sexually. The two central female characters are falling in love with each other, but they are also engulfing their desires in a sexual lust that makes Soo-kee’s original plan increasingly difficult to carry out. It is surprising as an English viewer that this traditional period drama setting doesn’t portray this desire with mere suggestion and topped-and-tailed sexual encounters. There is literally no holding back, which I’m sure many will find crass, but I found it essential to the plot and executed with enough artistic integrity to not be considered as superfluous.

This is simply one of the best films I’ve seen all year and one I can’t wait to see again once the extended cut is released on home media later this year. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Secret Cinema X 2017 – Another successful guess!

So the truth is finally out there. The Handmaiden was this year’s Secret Cinema X film, as predicted in an article published here a month ago.

The official Twitter account finally announced the truth in a reveal video here. I’m gutted I didn’t get chance to go but it looked absolutely amazing. I’ll make do with Moulin Rouge next week instead.

I managed to watch The Handmaiden earlier today and the film is simply a must-see. Park Chan-wook is a masterful director and he has produced another work of wonder with his latest film. Check it out if you can!

You can order Secret Cinema X exclusive poster prints here, including the one featured in the header of this article.

Film review – Wake of Death (Phillipe Martinez, 2005)

I was recently enjoying a holiday in a Spanish beach resort. It was a great week, with brilliant weather and loads to do. One quirk of such holidays is the small selection of English-language television channels available. They’re always different and always extremely limited. This holiday was no different: BBC1, BBC2, BBC4 and ITV. And then there was movies4men.

Movies4men is a channel I steer clear of. Why? Because frankly it sounds like a pornography channel. It’s actually a terrible name for a fairly reasonable channel, with war and western genre films throughout the day and some action films in the evening. The name is, at best, a little sexist. But it sort of makes sense once you get used to it.

Anyway, if you turn it on at around 11pm on any night there is a fantastic chance you’re going to be stuck watching a poorly-executed Jean Claude Van Dämme film. And that’s where I was every night at 11pm. And that is how I came to watch Wake of Death.

It’s okay darling. It will be over soon.


“After his wife is brutally murdered, an ex-cop wages war against the Chinese triads,” reads the brief plot on IMDB. It tells you pretty much everything you need to know. It may well be one of the worst films I’ve ever watched.

The acting does nothing for a script written by a group of screenwriters – there were four – that probably knew that the script wasn’t particularly important for this film. Why? Because there would be no sequels. Because it had JCVD on the poster and the people who watch it will tend to only care about the action, fighting, martial arts, car chases and explosions. Because it’s hard to screenwrite “JCVD does typical JCVD stuff” without sounding nonchalant about the whole affair.

No matter what the result of the filmmaking process was, the audience would come. They would have been satisfied, albeit devoid of any kind of betterment.

They will have also been treated to a surprising number of JCVD sex scenes, which would probably have been more than they bargained for.

Van Damme has never been a great actor. Heck, he even used it as a defence in a lawsuit back in the 1996. Coincidentally, he has acted in 39 films since that comment from his lawyer was made. None of them appear to have really challenged the notion. 

The only time he tries to really act in ‘Wake of Death’ is a scene where he has to cry as he drunkenly remembers his dead wife. It’s as poorly-executed as that scene in one of the Taken films where Liam Neeson jumps over a fence, with about 10 different camera cuts along the traumatic rollercoaster ride. Someone is kind enough to throw water on Jean-Claude’s face between shots, but that’s still not enough to stop the director giving up and breaking the tension with a random Chinese triad bursting through the window and having a quick fight before running away.

If Van Damme has done some great cinema this millennium I am yet to see it. But his fans will seldom have been disappointed. 

Film review – Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016)

Deadpool may be many things. Some call it a superhero film. Some will call it an action film. Some will call it a romance. Some will call it a comedy. It may be all of these things, but one thing it doesn’t do is take itself seriously.

Deadpool has opened with the largest first weekend takings of an R-rated movie ever ($132.7m). Both the taking and the rating are well deserved. Where its superhero counterparts have sanitised the violence portrayed, Deadpool plays to it. There are beheadings. There are dead human carcasses splattered at high speed into road signs. There is terrible, offensive and graphic language. The violence is non-stop. There’s even more after the opening scene. Later, we visit a strip club. Indeed, there’s a sex montage that lasts about five minutes and is played for laughs. Nothing is off-limits.

It never loses its sense of humour, and at the centre of this achievement is Ryan Reynolds who proves that he’s the right guy for the job after all. We have seen Reynolds’s take on Deadpool once before, albeit in what is generally regarded to be a butchered take on the comic book character. His first appearance as the chatty bad ass was in 2008’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in which he was inexplicably not able to talk once he became Weapon XI / Deadpool. It was seen at the time as a missed opportunity by fanboys of the comics, though in hindsight it is hard to pin the blame on Reynolds. What else could he do with a silent character, especially acting alongside will.i.am?

This time around he is actively encouraged to pastiche other superhero films. Several times the fourth wall is broken to humorous effect, usually to take a poke at the previous Marvel films, the messy timeline involved in the X-Men franchise, Hugh Jackman himself and, most frequently, that underwhelming Origins film.

It’s refreshing to see a superhero film not taking itself very seriously. It was also great to see a director – a first-time director at that – given the ammo to do exactly what he wants with a film and not be told to fit it into a larger universe. We can only wonder if Ant-Man could have been this good if Edgar Wright was allowed to finish it.

Tim Miller has directed one short film prior to Deadpool. It was an animated short film from 2004 called Gopher Broke. You can view it here:

Supporting Cast

One of my favourite X-Men characters as a child was Collossus (Stefan Kapicic). Here he is given yet another outing on the big screen in a CGI creation that is well realised visually if not in terms of characterisation. He is present as one of Deadpool’s sidekicks solely for comic relief rather than to provide any real threat, and as a result it’s difficult to see him having any room to manoeuvre in future X-Men films.

The other sidekick character making up the lead trio is Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). An emo-styled young mutant, she at least has some potentially useful strength. However, she is also on the receiving end of some great one-liners from Deadpool and doesn’t offer much to suggest she might ever become a fan favourite.

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These two supporting X-Men were clearly only ever seen as a bit of background built around the requirement for a subplot in the final battle sequence. A joke is made at one point about the studio not being able to afford any more X-Men. There is doubtless some truth in this.

Elsewhere, the supporting cast also includes the annoyingly evil Ed Skrein, who does a good job of making the fairly generic character Ajax quite dislikable. Morena Baccarin is well cast as the romantic interest, though it’s a shame we saw yet another an initially headstrong female character dissolve into a damsel in distress. Hopefully she will be given more prominence if a sequel is made – if they stick to the comic books she will become the mutant Copycat.

Conclusion

It is a very good film, almost a great film. It’s brash, it’s offensive and it’s graphic. It’s almost like a superhero film from an alternate reality, where the primary goal isn’t to sell action figures and lunchboxes. Its failings are more than made up for by how refreshing it was to see a completely different take on the genre.

If nothing else, at least now we can say a film has done justice to the Deadpool franchise.

Deadpool is out now at cinemas globally.

Film review – A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2016)

A Bigger Splash tells the story of Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), an ageing rock star taking a resting vacation on the remote Italian island Pantelleria with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a filmmaker. Their vacation is disrupted when Marriane’s larger-than-life ex Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrives with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).

Watching A Bigger Splash is a little like watching a car crash in agonisingly slow motion. As the tensions rise and tempers are frayed, you see the action unfolding and there’s nothing you can do about it. Even though you want to look away you just can’t.

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An interesting choice attributed to Swinton herself was that Marianne is recovering from an operation on her vocal folds. It means that her abundant acting abilities risk going to waste. This isn’t the case at all. Indeed, that she is able to command her scenes whilst not even speaking highlights her presence in front of a camera. Her frustration at not being able to shut Harry up is evident. This, mixed with Paul’s desire to not be drawn into arguments and Penelope’s apparent disinterest in just about everything, means Harry is able to be the centre of attention at all times, much to the bemusement of the three people whose lives he is engulfing.

It’s a tremendous performance from Fiennes. He is most certainly an annoying person to watch on screen, let along imagine being on holiday with. He’s a tragic man desperate to avoid the realisation that nobody cares anymore. We all know someone like Harry in our lives, but none of us like him. Unfortunately, whilst the performance is fantastic and it plays out beautifully, it doesn’t necessarily make for great cinema. Achieving a cinematic goal doesn’t justify it.

One thing this film shares with La Piscine, the 1969 French film on which this is based, is the gratuitous nudity. It didn’t really feel integral to the plot, and lacked any kind of eroticism that it may have been angling for, feeling instead to be overly sleazy.

The political setting didn’t really give any edge to the film either. Set amid a backdrop of illegal migrants landing on Pantelleria, it just felt like a shallow attempt to date the film without adding much to the plot. This could have been rectified if we’d seen the migrants sooner, but by the time they were first mentioned it felt like an irrelevant afterthought.

The film also feels about twenty minutes too long, with the action seeming to reach a climax only to drag  on far beyond the point it held my attention. As with all car crashes, it’s not very enjoyable to watch. The elements are all there – great acting, beautiful scenery, fantastic plot development – it’s just that the overall effect doesn’t deliver on its component parts.

A Bigger Splash is out at cinemas now.