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.

Metro Manila (Philippines-UK, 2013)

Hustling in the urban jungle

Hustling in the urban jungle

British director Sean Ellis follows Peter Strickland (Katalin Varga), Gareth Edwards (Monsters, UK, 2010) and Gareth Evans (The Raid, Indonesia-US-France, 2011) in moving abroad to get their films made: the Philippines, Mexico and Indonesia respectively. Basically it’s cheaper; Ellis reportedly remortgaged his house to help fund Metro Manila. These are all good films and indicative of the increasing ‘transnationality’ of the film industry. Whilst Hollywood is looking to China for its box office salvation, Ellis chooses to make a film that is rooted in its setting and, indirectly, comments upon globalisation. It’s true, though, that the narrative of ‘innocent’ farmers being forced to the city after being unable to make a living off the land could be told in many places.

Ellis shoots cheaply and the cast translated his English script into (street) Tagalog as it was filmed.  The principals are all excellent with special mention for Jake Macapagal as the ‘good man’, Oscar, forced into terrible circumstances. He conveys, with the merest hint of a change of expression, his distress in finding his decency assaulted at almost every turn. The first part of the film is a suitably depressing tale of the exploited underclass before the film morphs into a thriller as Oscar tries to provide for his family.

The existence of the underclass

The existence of the underclass

I watched the film the day I read about Martin Sorrel’s £40m pay packet for doing his job last year. I struggle to understand why such people need incentives to do a good job, for which they are well paid anyway. The truth is such obscene ‘wages’ directly cause the poverty suffered by the underclasses of the world. The cost of the self important, who believe they are worth more than most, is a hellish existence for many. Ellis’ film depicts the degradation of the world’s ‘losers’ with great skill.

 

Breathless (Ddongpari, South Korea, 2008)

How to like the despicable

How to like the despicable

Whilst most of the Korean films I watch are beautifully framed, Jang Ik-joon’s debut features the long-lens, hand held close up that gives an edgy, uncomfortable look to proceedings. It’s entirely appropriate as the film’s protagonist is Sang-Hoon (played by Jang who also wrote the script), an unhinged debt collector who is as likely to beat up his associates as their victims. He meets school girl Yeon-Hue (Kim Kot-bi) when he spits on her… you get the picture.

However, the more we learn about Sang-Hoon’s upbringing the more we understand his behaviour. It would be stretching a point that the film gets us to actually like the thug, but we do come to understand why he is the way he is. Yeon-Hue, too, is a product of a dysfunctional family though she responds with feistiness rather than violence. Presumably that’s to do with gender, how females and males are socially constructed; South Korea is portrayed as an extremely patriarchal society.

Jang has yet to direct another film but has acted in many others; I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work.

Bedevilled (Kim Bok-nam salinsageonui jeonmal, S.Korea, 2010)

The reaper is grimeth

The reaper is grimeth

This film reminded me of The Naked Island as it’s set on an isolated ‘backwater’ in East Asia. Whilst the Japanese film focuses on the battles against the inhospitable environment, Bedevilled (a pretty rubbish title – anyone know what the original title is in English?) focuses on the misogyny of the ‘throwback’ inhabitants. Hae-won (Seong-won Ji) returns to her birthplace having spent 15 years in Seoul; it’s evidently not made her a nice person as she abuses a co-worker and refuses a ‘nice old lady’ a loan. In addition, she refuses to testify against three violent men who she’d witnessed beating up a woman. Hoping the escape from her present in her past, with her girlhood friend Bok-nam, Hae-won finds…

I won’t spoil but as the image above attests we find ourself increasingly inhabiting a horror film. I find it’s often the case, in East Asian cinema (sorry wild generalisation ahead), that when the tone of a film changes it’s done ‘full throttle’. There’s no sense at all that ‘good taste’ has anything to do with the use of genre and that’s how it should be.  As usual, the direction is immaculate with beautiful compositions the norm, rather than the exception, which is usually the case in Hollywood.

As the film gets, literally, more hysterical, as the abused woman unleashes her fury, the film offers a devastating critique of patriarchy; the older women on the island are all complicit. In one scene, a knife is fellated – see below.

Off-putting

Off-putting

If Tartan Video’s Asia Extreme label was still in operation, it would be marketed under the moniker. As one reviewer stated, the film is ‘Able to make a statement while providing plenty of sex and gore.‘ In other words, ‘titillation and visceral shock included’. It’s an inherently male way of categorising films, I think; the focus on transgressive, and exploitative, images. However, it is quite clear that the reviewer entirely appreciated the film’s condemnation of patriarchy: a case of having and eating cake?

 

Swiri (South Korea, 1999)

More heroic bloodshed

More heroic bloodshed

Directed, like Brotherhood, by Kang Je-kye, Swiri was the first South Korean blockbuster and, as such, a statement of confidence in an industry that was emerging from being a political football for the whole of its history. The plot concerns an attempt by North Korean agents to blow up the Presidents of both North and South in order to force reunification; I’m not sure of the details but the main heavy is played Choi Min-sik so whatever he says is good for me. Choi is probably best known in the west for his role as the titular Oldboy (Oldeuboi, 2003); he also appeared in Brotherhood. The ‘undercover’ spy narrative may be more intense in a divided country like Korea as the different are, essentially, the same. And this is well used in Swiri as the protagonist, convincingly played by Han Suk-kyu, finds his loyalty divided.

Less convincing for me were the action sequences which often lacked credibility. For example, the bad guy’s trapped in a theatre, starts shooting; cut: he’s being chased outside. Hollywood action cinema does the same but maybe not usually quite so blatantly. I was tiring of hearing the rattle of empty bullet cases so I was watching the wrong movie.

Brotherhood (Taegukgi hwinalrimyeo, South Korea, 2004)

Brothers at war

Brothers at war

Although this was the most expensive film ever made by the South Korean film industry at the time, it was only budgeted at $13m. It looks a considerable amount more with numerous impressive set pieces both in Seoul and Pyongyang and on the battlefield. Its release just after the 50th anniversary of the Korean war’s end no doubt contributed to its box office success. It’s clearly influenced by Saving Private Ryan (US 1998) with a framing device set in the present and visceral battle sequences that have an immersive quality. Dramatically the film works well by focusing on two brothers who, unsurprisingly, end up on opposing sides. It’s a powerful metaphor for the particular circumstance of a country at war with itself. The leads Jang Dong-gun and Won Bin are excellent and, despite the on-going hostility within the partitioned peninsula, the film doesn’t whitewash South Korean atrocities. Indeed, the most chilling scene in the film is when so-called Communist collaborators in Seoul are being rounded up and executed on the flimsiest of evidence. The influence of Hong Kong’s ‘heroic bloodshed’ is apparent in a number of the superhuman battles that the older brother engages in. Clearly we are not in realist territory here and it is interesting the degree to which it seems necessary that the male body be bloodied in the action genre. This is certainly not limited to the East; Paul Willeman argued that such violence on the male body, in the westerns of Anthony Mann, was a way of repressing the erotic component of the male look on the male body. Ultimately I found the sentimentality of the film slightly off-putting. However, as a film about a war that is under-represented, in the west at least, it is certainly worth watching. Whilst the brilliant American sitcom M.A.S.H. (1972-83) was set in Korea, it wasn’t about that particular war.

Samaritan Girl, (Samaria, S.Korea, 2004)

Growing up too quickly

Growing up too quickly

The DVD cover of this film features a nun and behind her is a woman who appears to be in the process of having her clothes taken off. The marketing for the film is a ‘come on’ suggesting something kinky: nuns and sex. Unless I missed something, the nun doesn’t feature in this Kim Ki-duk film but it does deal with teenage prostitution; which some may find kinky. It’s easy to see why feminists woman the barricades against Kim’s films, his female characters are regularly prostitutes, however Chang  Hye-seung, in her The Films of Kim Ki-du, is a convincing advocate who argues against Kim’s misogyny.

In keeping with Kim’s ‘extreme’ reputation, the ‘samaritan girl’ is a teenage prostitute; her age isn’t given but she looks around 14 or 15. Jae-yeong is raising money for a trip to Europe, with her friend Yeo-jin, who is reluctantly Jae-yeong’s pimp. A typically disturbing set up then but, despite the subject matter, Kim eschews exploitative imagery and uses the narrative to investigate ‘coming of age’. True, it’s a ‘coming of age’ unlikely to be experienced by many but Kim is more interested in the psychodrama than realism.

Spoilers ahead. Jae-yeong dies, after jumping from a motel window to avoid the police; disturbingly she seems to be smiling when she does this. In memory of her friend Yeo-jin then has sex with her friend’s clients, returning the money they paid. The film’s in three parts: (1) ‘Vasumitra’, named after a prostitute in ancient times whose clients were converted to Buddhism, something Jae-yeong is trying to emulate; (2) ‘Samaria’, when Yeo-jin pays the money back and succeeds, at least in part, in getting the men to think about their actions in having sex with a minor; (3) ‘Sonata’ where Yeo-jin’s dad, a policeman who discovers what’s she’s doing, takes her on a journey into the countryside (and the past) – the ‘Sonata’ refers to the car. 

The journey into the countryside, where her dad’s motivations are uncertain, is one into tradition. They stay one night in basic accommodation as the guest of a stranger, clearly setting up this space as positive against Seoul’s city life which, presumably, inspired Jae-yeong’s behaviour. Her dad spent the second part of the film trying to prevent Yeo-jin’s clients getting to her; despite his obvious affection for his daughter (his wife is dead) he clearly cannot bring himself to discuss what she is doing. In a brilliant scene, he confronts one of his daughter’s clients whilst he is having a family meal. When confronted, in such a context, with the fact he had sex with a minor he does, what some might consider, the honourable  thing from several floors up. This is superbly staged with the violence happening just offscreen; so as not Asia extreme.

Chang discusses the final section as dramatising female rebirth, as her father sets her free of patriarchy, outside the ‘phallocentric’ symbolic order’. I must confess this is not how I understood it when watching the film, however the reading is convincing and demonstrates that Kim’s feminist detractors are misreading his films. However, I think they can be forgiven for doing so as Samaritan Girl is obscure.

Kim isn’t the only filmmaker to be criticised for his use of prostitutes in his film. Godard’s work often did the same and it is difficult to argue against the idea that the character is often used in a misogynist fashion: it defines women through sex and offers dramatically motivated opportunities for female nudity. This obsession, by both men and women (see here), of defining females by their bodies is central to western civilisation and is debilitating, in terms of our social relations, for both sexes. Recently, in the UK, there was a Facebook trend of friends daring one another to post a picture of themselves without make-up. It was striking how great the women looked without it.