The Handmaiden

This might not be the most useful review of The Handmaiden. Because this review is informed by the experience of a person who did not have an inaccurate idea of what The Handmaiden would be, but a distinctly incomplete one. Also I watched it in a very small theater with three very elderly couples, and have no way of knowing exactly how much impact those…interesting circumstances had.

Here is everything I knew going in: The Handmaiden is the newest film from Park Chan-Wook, adapted from a novel called Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. The pun of the title has been maintained, bless, but the setting has been rather brilliantly transposed from Victorian Britain to 1930s Korea, when the country was under Japanese rule. The cinematography is by frequent Park collaborator Chung Chung-Hoon, who was the DP for Stoker. Stoker was actually the only Park Chan-Wook movie I had seen; this would become relevant while watching The Handmaiden. And finally: Harold, they’re lesbians.

The first thing I found out while watching it, is that Chung has done it again. I do not know how that man films greens this rich, but it’s extraordinary. And I actually do know a lot of this is him, not just the color correctors, because I’ve an audio engineer friend who saw the raw footage for Stoker as it was coming in to be processed, and was amazed at how pretty the colors already were. The Handmaiden was turning out to be another gorgeously shot movie, with a visual quality I’ve never seen outside of other Park/Chung projects. And so the movie tripped along doing its lush, stylized thing, the story dark but Stoker-dark, with a Stoker sort of humor throughout. A rewarding fact quickly emerged, which was that even with some gross men circling around, the movie thinks they’re gross too, and thinks the two women at the center is the good part, the part we should focus on, the part to care about and root for.

Then a huge plot twist happened, my mouth dropped open in shock, the screen read “Part Two”, and that’s when I realized I was in for a RIDE.

Part Two gets wild. Part Two does this utterly fascinating thing where it goes over many of the events of the first part again, but this time from the POV of the other woman at the center of the story. We’ll be shown the same exact scene but from a literal new angle, often continuing on to show what we now realize was a very relevant development that had been hidden from us during the first part. This is totally brilliant. But something else is also getting amplified in Part Two, and that is the horror. Park Chan-Wook makes bold and violent and disturbing movies. Beautiful, highly elegant and composed, but horrifying. I had happened to watch one of his relatively milder ones, so hadn’t realized just how far he’ll go with creepy, cruel content, of a sort that made me start to feel like I do in the middle of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, when I wonder if I can even stand to keep watching this.

Very like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, in fact. The Handmaiden too is aesthetically dazzling, contrasts sexual atrocities with sexual love, and is very explicit in its depiction of both. The sex scenes between the women are striking in their length and nudity, but in a development on the other shocking sequences, in these what is uncensored is an expression of care and pleasure. The central narrative importance of the joy Hideko and Sookhee find in sleeping with each other is being told in the same bold, exaggerated language already established, heightened compositions giving way to heightened sex scenes — which is one of several elements at play that has me dubious that criticism of the movie’s “male gaze” is really the most accurate way to address what is going on here.

Anyhow, The Handmaiden is not even done yet — following the astonishing Part Two is Part Three. The twists keep flipping into place like the smoothly clicking lenses at the optometrist’s office, each time making a clearer image, a better image. And as the story came into full focus, that’s when I realized I was being led into yet another surprise: underneath all the display and deception, beats a truly romantic heart.

The Addams Family, What We Do In the Shadows

A couple on-the-day Halloween watches to wrap up the Spooky Season, which for me apparently means mostly cheery-morbid comedies?

The Addams Family

I had never seen this before! Which I don’t think anyone will find more surprising than I did while watching it. All about those dark weird cobweb-chic aesthetics, a tone that puts the dead in deadpan, and a candy-sweet core. For The Addams Family is, in fact, about family, both formed and found, and it is deeply sincere about that. It’s sarcastic about other things — fear of death, silly societal “rules”, Freudian psychoanalysts — but not about familial love. It’s love that beats in the heart of the Addams’ haunted home, making it feel so creepily, delightfully alive. And at the heart of that is the particular love Gomez and Morticia have for each other — a wildly passionate, kinky, worshipful devotion between these long-married parents of two that is, hey, charming as hell.

In other news, Christopher Lloyd has become my Actor Of Autumn, showing up in a surprising number of things I’ve watched recently: Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, Clue, Over the Garden Wall, and now The Addams Family.

What We Do In the Shadows

I started giggling at the perfectly out of focus New Zealand Documentary Board logo that stayed on screen for two beats too long, and then did not stop. This is a mockumentary, I guess would be the first thing to know, following a group of vampires who live together in a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. It’s a slice of life, dealing with typical vampire domestic concerns like talking to that one flatmate who hasn’t washed his bloody dishes in five years, how to negotiate bringing over guests you’re going to drink, or ways to make sure the squad is looking good for a night out when you can’t see yourselves in a mirror.

You know the sort of hilarity that comes from masterful improv actors who know each other really well and have been given an incredible premise to play with? That’s this. An instantly quotable treasure.