The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi, S.Korea, 2016)

Sensual thriller

It’s great that The Handmaiden has been an arthouse hit as the sector has been getting increasingly desperate over the last few years. Exhibitors’ tame policies, exemplified by Picturehouse’s ‘discover Tuesdays’ (in Bradford at least) where we get one chance to see often interesting films: yer buggered if your busy on Tuesday! Maybe Carlton’s online streaming service, where its films are released the same time as in cinemas, are encouraging stay-at-homers. It’s easy to see why The Handmaiden has done good business: Sarah Waters has fanbase, as does director Park Chan-wook, and there’s the promise of lots of sex.

I enjoyed Waters’ novel, Fingersmith (2002), which may be why I felt slightly distanced from the narrative in the film until… (no spoilers). However, even when I wasn’t fully engaged, Park’s luscious mise en scene was captivating. He (Park adapted the novel with  Jeong Seo-kyeong) transfers the story to 1930s Korea when it was a Japanese colony so in addition to the theme of class, the film deals with ethnicity.

The sex is explicit and it’s to your taste whether you found it exploitative; the women’s bodies are well bared. I thought it was not because the sexual relationship between the characters was entirely germane to the narrative’s development. Discovering the delights, and beauty, of the female body, from a lesbian perspective, is under-represented in mainstream cinema and Park’s film subtlely emphasises this.

I saw what Picturehouse marketed as the ‘director’s cut’; 167 minutes to the standard release’s 143 minutes. I’m not sure what was added but chose it on the basis that an extra 20 minutes, for a two and a half hour film, wasn’t going to kill me. However, in the credits it was called an ‘extended edition’. Director’s cuts are usually the version without the producer’s or distributor’s interference, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Puzzling. I didn’t find the running time long; it felt shorter than the dire The Ghost in the Shell (2017).

Park’s one of the most interesting filmmakers around and I will watch The Handmaiden again.

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Ghost in the Shell (Japan-UK, 1995) and (US-India-China-Japan-Hong Kong-UK-New Zealand-Canada-Australia, 2017)

What am I?

It was great to be able to see the original on the big screen. Apart from the ability to see the awesome detail of the cityscape more clearly, it was Kawai Kenji’s score that had significantly more impact when compared to TV viewing. As I understand it, Ghost in the Shell was a prestige (expensive) production that attempted to rekindle the west’s (relative) enthusiasm for anime that had flared with Akira (Japan, 1988); hence Manga Entertainment’s UK involvement in the production (it’s now owned by Lionsgate). Whilst Studio Ghibli’s productions continued to have a fanbase in the west, there was a gap in the market for a more action orientated film (presumably for fanboys). Whilst anime remains a minority enthusiasm this side of the globe, anyone who saw The Matrix (US, 1999) was seeing the fruits of Ghost’s impact on the Wachowski brothers.

Ghost in the Shell continues to be influential in 2017 not only because of its visuals but in its portrayal of a society where the division between humans and technology is becoming extremely blurred. It wouldn’t have been surprising if this aspect of the film had dated because of the rapid pace of technological development over the last 20 years. However, if anything, it’s even more telling now because although we are not yet able, as humans, to exist online, many people don’t feel they are whole unless they are on the network. Young people, in particular, are wedded to mobile social media. The division between AI and humans, a topic that is ever more relevant as the Internet of Things invades our homes, is central to the film’s concerns.

I can’t, however, say I entirely understand the film; and its brilliant sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Japan, 2004) is even more opaque. Philosophy is difficult but it isn’t so much the ideas Ghost that perplex, rather what is going on for some of the time. Whilst the complexity may be wilful it can also be read as being about an increasingly incomprehensible world where actual news may be ‘fake news’; for example the fact that Britain and America are complicit in atrocities in Yemen is barely reported. In the UK we voted to leave the EU for reasons not based on truth (and there are many arguments why the EU is not fit for purpose) but on lies. However, Brian Ruh’s detailed plot summary in Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii confirms that the narrative is entirely coherent.

Although there is plenty of narrative drive in the film, it is a three-minute montage of cityscape that is most mesmerising. Colin Marshall offers some interesting analysis of this sequence (here); he explains that the emphasis on the space of the city is linked to cyberspace and shows how the boundaries between the real world and virtual reality is blurring; I’ve yet to look as his other videos. What Marshall doesn’t mention is Kusanagi is present in some of the montage, on her own , in parts of the montage giving us, I think, a sense of her loneliness.

You can see what I am

The first buzz I heard about the American remake was that the film offered another example of Hollywood ‘whitewashing’: Caucasian actors taking the role of minority ethnic characters; as for example in Doctor Strange (US, 2016) and Aloha (US, 2015). In this case it was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi. The charge is potent, the white dominance of executive positions in the film industry guarantees a monocular view of what audiences want: BAME, not to mention female characters, won’t appeal to a wide audience’ goes the ‘logic’ despite the evidence to the contrary – see Hidden Figures and Moonlight. See also: ‘Screenplay analysis shows that even in films with strong female leads, the number of lines by men far outweighs those by women’. However, the charge is weak in this case. Japanese anime conventionally doesn’t necessarily draw its characters as Japanese; the one obvious Japanese character in the original, Arimaki, is play by Kitano Takeshi in remake. There’s also a plot point that emphasises Kusanagi’s ethnicity.

Although I’d liked the trailer I was doubtful whether Ghost in the Shell would benefit from the Hollywood treatment and so it proved. Ironically, given the original’s purpose was to appeal to western audiences, the necessity to appeal to a very wide audience to justify the $100m+ budget drains the narrative of its fascination. The philosophy is barely present and the ending is ridiculous. The producers are looking to produce an ‘origin story’ to make the Major, as she is known in the film, as a new superhero. Fortunately poor box office returns suggest this won’t happen.

As noted above, Hollywood has already remade the original in The Matrix that managed to weld gung-ho action to philosophical questions. 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, though, through its eerie beauty and embrace of the human/AI interface, is the film for the 21st century.

PS Cineworld managed to leave us in the dark at the end: excellent. However, the masking was incorrect; this site suggests the problems endemic.

Get Out (US, 2017)

‘They really don’t get it, do they?’

Blumhouse has a reputation for low budget horror productions, such as the very successful Paranormal Activity (2009-15) and The Purge (2013-) series. Get Out has beaten them and parlayed a $5m budget into, to date, $184m worldwide box office. In order to attain such numbers it’s clearly broken out of its teen core audience and shows what can be done when genre pleasures, this is a good horror film, are woven into the zeitgeist. Jordan Peele, the writer-director, has made a film that is about race in the 21st century.

Black British actor, Daniel Kaluuya, takes the lead as Chris who’s going to meet the parents of his white, preppy, girlfriend Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams. He asks if they know he’s black and she tells him her parents aren’t racist. Chris is obviously not entirely reassured by the blasé statement because he knows that even if they aren’t racist it doesn’t mean that they won’t treat him in a racist way so embedded, particularly in the American psyche, is the politics of slavery.

The end credits state the film’s shot in Alabama, however this location (to my eyes at least) is not obvious in the film. At first I thought this was a missed trick, evoking the Deep South would immediately trigger associations of slavery, however I realised that Peele didn’t want to make a point about the racism of Old America, he was showing racism now anywhere in middle class America.

Peele leads us into the horror with great skill. The Prologue shows a black man being attacked on a suburban street; when he states before the attack that the suburbs are scary he means for a black person. After this the build-up is slow, with enough hints (particularly from Catherine Keener’s mum) that beneath the wealthy, liberal surface there lurks something not right. Allison’s dad points to a cellar, that resonant setting for horror, and states it’s sealed off because of black mould. Chris’s discomfort increases as the wealthy white and their black servants surround him; when he tries to connect with a ‘brother’ he finds incomprehension.

Spoiler alerts:
Peele takes us on a tour of references including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, 1956), The Stepford Wives (US, 1975 and 2004) and, in the clinical and opulent mise en scene of Armitage house, Kubrick’s The Shining (UK, 1980). These references avoid being derivative because they’re used to make a statement about contemporary racial politics, particularly the #Blacklivesmatter campaign in America. In a fantastic climax it appears the police have arrived to save Chris. He puts up his hands, his white girlfriend is lying on the floor crying for help… Peele knows most in the audience would realise that there is good chance, in those circumstances in reality, that the police would summarily execute Chris.

One false note for me was LilRey Howery’s Rod, Chris’s ‘comic turn’ mate, whose bumbling detracts from the drama too much. As a horror film it has enough gore at the climax to satisfy most and not too much to detract for the squeamish.

I imagine that the film is popular with minority ethnic audiences and demonstrates, like the never-ending Fast and Furious franchise (2009-), that producers daring enough not to  assume ‘white’ is the default setting can be a profitable route. The film garnered a bit of controversy in America when Samuel L. Jackson questioned the casting of a British actor rather than a ‘brother’. Kaluuya’s considered response, in Vanity Fair, suggested he is a brother because he is an ‘outsider’:

“When I’m around black people I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned,” he explained. “I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going ‘You’re too black.’ Then I come to America and they say, ‘You’re not black enough.’ I go to Uganda, I can’t speak the language. In India, I’m black. In the black community, I’m dark-skinned. In America, I’m British. Bro!”

Get Me Out is about outsiders and how some poeple use liberal attitudes as a badge of their own character and not as an ideological position to fight for equality. Although not quite directly related to  this, an altercation on CNN between a white Trump supporting pundit and three African American voices shows how the default setting of debate is the white setting – click here.

PS Infuriatingly the lights were turned on before the film had finished. What’s a few seconds to gather yourself after an excellent film matter?! Cineworld watch out.

Ilo Ilo (Singapore-Taiwan-Japan-France, 2013)

Unhappy family

Might be the conjunction of the planets but there’s been a few interesting films on free-to-air UK TV recently. Ilo Ilo (the title, the Guardian’s reviewer says, is a “Mandarin phrase meaning “mum and dad not at home”) is a family melodrama focusing on the impact of the 2007-08 economic crisis. Coincidentally, as in my previous post The Olive Tree, economic issues form the context but the grandfather-grandchild is not so central in this Singaporean film. Angela Bayani plays Terry, the Filipina maid brought in to help with the badly-behaved 10 year-old, Jiale. Although wringing the child’s neck seems a reasonable reaction to his actions, it is clear that mum and dad’s problems have left him neglected. If there is one weakness in the film it’s the transition from antagonism to friendship in the relationship between Terry and Jiale is a little abrupt but everything else in writer-director Anthony Chen’s debut feature is convincing.

In one particularly effective scene a neighbour in the high-rise flats commits suicide from the building’s top. We experience this from Terry’s perspective; the shock she feels is palpable. Although we are not told why the person gave up his life it is likely the economic insecurity that led to his actions. Like in Falling Down (US, 1993), Jiale’s dad goes to work each day even though he doesn’t have a job. The American film was one of a number that reflected American anxiety at the rising economic power of East Asia; 20 years on it seems everyone is in decline (except China and India).

The film’s also emotionally engaging in terms of the plight of migrant workers. At best, they are treated as second class citizens -Terry’s passport is immediately confiscated by Jiale’s mother – and her desperation at being away from her baby is clear.

I noted in my post on The Olive Tree that melodrama is not an effective genre for instigating political action but is good for raising awareness. Ilo Ilo does this, for those of us in the west, about ordinary people’s lives in South East Asia. The insecure job market is endemic, as is the poor treatment of migrants. In the UK we are embarking on what will no doubt, if today’s disgusting (even by its standards) Daily Mail is allowed to set the tone, be a vicious election campaign where the right wing will shout down any compassion for others. Watching films from other cultures is one of the few ways we can learn to empathise with others as they are, of course, just like us.

The contempt for democracy, which requires dissent, is obvious in the headline but I wonder whether whoever chose the image of PM Teresa May realised how demonic she looks.

The Olive Tree (El olivo, Spain-Germany, 2016)

Past and future

The filmmaking team (and spouses) of director Icíar Bollaín and scriptwriter Paul Laverty (who wrote I, Daniel Blake amongst others of Ken Loach’s films) made the brilliant Even the Rain and if The Olive Tree isn’t quite that good it’s still a film to relish.

I moaned a few posts back at being bored of man-centred storied so having a young woman, Alma (Anna Castillo), was a good start, particularly one who was fighting patriarchal bullshit that appears to be particularly influential in Spain. The narrative centres around the relationship with her grandfather, who’s declining into dementia, and the olive tree which represents past values. If that suggests a reactionary film, which would be typical of the politics of melodrama, then that would be wrong because the film has the present to rail against. The 2007-08 financial crash, municipal corruption and patriarchal values are shown for their destructive qualities against which tradition family values, represented by the 2000 year-old olive tree, are clearly superior.

I felt slightly anxious throughout that the film would veer to much toward the feel-good. I’m not against feeling good but that, through catharsis, is the political project of mainstream cinema so we momentarily forget our ills. A political film should enrage the audience to action. As noted, melodrama is not ideal for this, because it focuses on individuals rather than people acting together, however it is an excellent vehicle for raising awareness if not stimulating change. That is especially true for a well-told tale that, with sympathetic performances, the The Olive Tree offers.

High-Rise (UK-Belguim, 2015)

The depths of civilization

Director Ben Wheatley has a big reputation but I’ve never warmed to his work; however this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel is quite brilliant. I am a fan of Ballard, though I did most of my reading of him during my teenage years. At that time even though I found it difficult to make sense of, what has come to be known as the Ballardian, the strangeness of his worlds obviously attracted me. I read High-Rise recently and, as far as I can remember, the film makes the themes of the book more obvious. It may be the nature of the filmic image that necessitates pulling what’s on the novel’s page more into focus. This could also be a consequence of Amy Jump’s adept adaptation. If this sounds like I’m playing the book against the film then that’s not the intention; the film is a great interpretation of the book.

Central to the film’s success is setting it in the time in which it was written. The high-rise flat itself, in Ballard’s particular design, did not exist in the ’70s however it was typical of his novels to take familiar bourgeois tropes and intensify them to show their destructive nature. Mark Tildesley’s production design ensures the mise en scene reeks of the decade, as does the costume design, replete with killer sideburns; the latter most befitting Luke Evans’ character, Wilder.

Wild thing

Ballard’s names are melodramatic. Wilder is, as his name suggests, a wild card that rails against restraint, not for political reasons but for the macho fun of it. Tom Hiddleston’s protagonist is Robert Laing, which references psychiatrist R.D. Laing who gained some fame in the 1960s with his suggestion that the (bourgoise) nuclear family created mental illness. The film’s Laing is a physiologist but the parallel is clear. Jeremy Irons plays the high-rise’s architect and lives on the top floor: he’s named Royal. His swept back, greying hair, and hobbling gait (except when he plays squash) give him the ghoulish look of Boris Karloff; a suitable monster to oversee the descent into chaos the building causes. It was during the 1960s that the failure of high-rise flats, as a cheap form of accommodation for the working classes, became apparent: they were soulless, lacking in community and often unsafe. Ballard’s high-rise, however, is home to the bourgeoisie: on the upper floors the posh reside (Laing attends a fancy dress party where everyone, except him, is dressed as 18th century aristocrats); lower down the aspiring middle classes try to buy their way into perceived sophistication through consumer culture.

Laurie Rose, Wheatley’s regular cinematographer, gives the film’s colour palette the look of a polaroid photograph (a ‘must-have’ gadget of the time) its shot in impressive 2.39:1 widescreen. The roving steadicam (not of its time) is reminiscent of Kubrick’s pioneering work in The Shining (UK-US, 1980) adding to the surreal spookiness of the atmosphere.

It’s an excellent cast also including Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss and Keeley Hawes. The women are somewhat marginalised; but that was the ’70s. I particularly liked the line, delivered by Moss when she’s having sex with Laing, that he is a good utility; not sure that was in the original but well done to Jump to putting it in. Miller’s very good at conveying the slightly vacant beauty that the patriarchal 1960s expected of its attractive women.

I’ve mentioned that the film’s relatively straightforward to follow but there are some fabulous montages of the decadent chaos the high-rise descends into. I liked the final touch where we hear Margaret Thatcher espousing that only with private sector capitalism can we have true freedom. She probably believed it but Ballard didn’t.

A final plaudit must go to producer Jeremy Thomas, who was also responsible for Crash (Canada-UK, 1996), the only other film that has managed to come close to staging Ballard’s SF brilliance.

The Salesman (Forushande, Iran-France, 2016)

Not quite in the frame

Another film where Asghar Farhadi ‘places’ the spectator in shifting sands in terms of what might have happened offscreen, at a crucial moment, and challenges us as to how we should respond to the developing narrative. All his last four films use this device of withholding vital information from the audience however he’s less interested in created an enigma for a thriller, though it does this, as using the ellipsis as a space where the viewer is offered to opportunity to think through various possibilities.

As in the previous films (I’ve blogged about The Past and A Separation) Farhadi obliquely (to avoid censorship?) critiques Iranian society; primarily its patronising patriarchy. In a dramatic opening, the central characters’ home is shaking as if being hit by an earthquake; it transpires its foundations are being undermined by badly regulated builders. It’s a bravura sequence, much of it is shot in one take. This metaphor extends from the shaky foundations of Iranian society to the wobbling marriage of the protagonists Rana and Emad, played superbly by Farhadi regulars Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini (who won an award at Cannes).

The couple are also playing in an am-dram production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; the initially confusing mise en scene of the title sequence is found to be the construction of the set for the play. Miller’s play about the disillusionment, of an average Joe, with the American dream is intended to cast light on Emad in particular, a teacher who is playing the salesman. Some have found this heavy handed (see The Guardian’s Bradshaw); I wonder about the insistence on the importance of subtlety. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting the audience thinking but it isn’t a necessary signifier of ‘great art’. Farhadi is a melodramatist and over-determination is an essential tool of the genre. Maybe Bradshaw, and his ilk, are mainly interested in art for what it says about their ability to ‘read’ difficult texts. If it’s too easy then they can’t shine.

I’m not going to ‘spoil’ by outlining what the narrative ‘hole’ motivates but an unravelling proceeds. There is more than enough subtlety in the changing vectors of the relationships between the characters to satisfy, I think, anyone who likes thought-provoking cinema. Farhadi is a melodramatist but that doesn’t mean he’s making EastEnders (a UK soap opera).

It’s a film, I suspect, that will reward a second viewing. I’d particularly like to experience the beautiful use of colour of the set of Miller’s work, to emphasise the artifice of the play, which is combined with unsettling moments when it isn’t clear whether the characters were in character or not.

Farhadi’s a top director; something the Academy Awards have celebrated for the second time as he was the guy who wouldn’t have been able to attend the Oscar ceremony because of Trump’s ban. Farhadi’s humanism transcends Iranian culture which is why he’s an arthouse favourite in the west (I’m guessing Trump doesn’t do culture).