The Handmaiden (2016): Simmering Sex and Dirty Books (Review)

Publicity still from The Handmaiden

Directed by critic favorite Chan-wook Park, The Handmaiden (inspired by Sarah Waters‘ depiction of Victorian England in her book “Fingersmith”) is, for all intents and purposes, a “bodice ripper.” In other words there is a good amount of simmering sex and a lot of dirty books.

Updated to fit the time frame of Japan’s occupation of Korea, it features a beautiful pair of women who share an unhappy past. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) has a lot of money and is orphaned. She lives with her uncle who has a large library of pornographic books that he forces her to read to an appreciative audience. 

Jun-su (Tae-ri Kim), a young pickpocket – whose male mentor is a thief of the highest order – becomes Hideko’s handmaiden. The mentor becomes Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and he “tricks” Hideko into marrying him.  

But all is not as it seems in this film. The uncle (Jin-woong Jowho forces Hideko to read porn to his paying guests may be the only character who flies his true flag’s colours. His only real artifice, if it can be called that, is to affect Japanese ways.

It is this affectation that allows the “Count” access to the man and Fujiwara’s pretending to be Japanese royalty is both his plan and downfall. It could be said that Fujiwara’s intentions are also pretty clear, he is like the uncle in this respect…

Hideko pretends to be an innocent in the ways of love and sex and Jun-su, of course, pretends to be a handmaid versus a thief. The latter’s instructions are to aid Count Fujiwara in his quest to bed and wed Lady Hideko.

Through the course of the film, which runs in three parts like the source novel, we are treated to the two women falling in love and some “soft porn” depictions of sex. We also learn that Hideko is not the wallflower that Jun-su thinks she is and that the reader of books is desperate to escape her uncle’s iron rule.

The film looks spectacular, even without all the lovingly lit and framed female nudity, and the set pieces, along with the costumes, help to bring the film’s setting to life.  The story, broken into three parts, reveals what is going on behind the scenes, although the final act really wraps things up.

Behind all the subterfuge and the nefarious doings of various characters, the film really is a romance. It chronicles, at the start, the two women and their gradual awareness of each other. What starts as an infatuation graduates to full sexual congress and they bond completely before the “Count” ever arrives.

We learn of Jun-su’s (whose name is changed to Sook-Hee when she starts work at the house) background and what makes the young woman tick.  Leaving out the lovemaking (there is not a huge amount anyway) the romance between the two women takes second place to the mystery of who is really doing what.

In many ways this feels like a combination of Stoker with a touch of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” For those who never heard of the book, it was a sensation “back in the day” as a story regaling the reader of a “lady” who fancied a bit of “rough.” A lot. In this particular tale, the “rough” is a young pickpocket and not a stablehand. (This really is down to the author of “Fingersmith” however and not Park Chan-wook.)

The film is a long one, clocking in at two hours and 24 minutes.  It does not, however, feel long. The story is interesting enough that it keeps the attention transfixed on the events in each of the three parts, or acts, as  presented.

The Handmaiden is a full 5 star treat and it is available on Amazon Prime, for free or can be rented/streamed if one is not a Prime customer. Head over and catch this one, if you can live with sub-titles, and enjoy this mystery/romance.

 

The Silenced (2015) aka Gyeongseonghakyoo: Sarajin Sonyeodeul (Review)

Scene from The Silenced

At first glance, The Silenced, aka Gyeongseonghakyoo: Sarajin Sonyeodeul looks like an odd continuation of the  “haunted girl’s high school” franchise. (Whispering Corridors,  Wishing Stairs, A Blood Pledge, et al.) It is, in fact, not part of these school horror films at all.

It may be set in an all girl’s school and they are all that age, but there is no ghost and the film takes place during the time of Japanese occupation of Korea, in 1938.  These are not “normal” teen girls, but young ladies who all have some sort of terrible illness.

The school is set out in the middle of nowhere and the teen girls are dropped off to this isolated  sanitarium run by a very strict headmistress.  All the boarders take special medication and exercise.

Each “student” is given a new name, Ju-ran, for instance, is called Shizuko; a Japanese name. The girl notices that her fellow students are disappearing and her health is improving to an alarming degree. The place is revealed to be  much more than a health inducing facility for girls.

Written and directed by Hae-young Lee and starring Bo-yeong ParkSo-dam Park and Ji-won Uhm the film follows Ju-ran as she discovers where the missing girls are.  She also learns the secret of the school.

The secret room in The Silenced

As The Silenced progresses we learn that “Shizuko” was the name of another girl who disappeared before Ju-ran arrived.

There are some familiar schoolgirl themes in this film. A “class” bully, teacher’s  who strike their pupils and a pushy headmaster.  At first the school seems to have been cursed but the truth is much stranger than any ghost or “damned” creature haunting the school.

The sets and the costumes all look spot on for the time period. Atmospheric and captivating, the film proves that South Korea can do these types of genres almost effortlessly.

The film shifts direction partway through and blends the mystery with the elements of horror perfectly. At 99 minutes long, the pace never drags and keeps the viewers interest until the last frame of the film.

The Silenced is a  4.5 star film. It entertains and ticks all the right boxes.  There is mystery,  an element of horror and some action.  The Japanese are portrayed as the baddies in this film, as they were the occupying force in those days.

Streaming on Netflix at the moment, this is well worth a look for fans of South Korean cinema.  Those who do not like subtitles in their films should give this one a miss.  Have a look at the trailer below and see if this is up your alley.

film poster

Monster aka Monseuteo (2014) South Korean Oddity

Still from Monster trailer
This 2014 South Korean film is an oddity. Monster, aka Monseuteo is directed by In-Ho Hwang (Spellbound, How to Catch a Virgin Ghost) who apparently could not make up his mind how to present the film. Marketing for Monster is straight suspense or thriller and murder mystery stuff. A serial killer who forces his victims to play “hide and seek” or die, as the trailer shows at the end of the review.

Min-ki Lee, who starred in Spellbound, plays Tae-su; psychopathic step brother and serial killer who turns his victims into pottery after burning their remains in a kiln. He mixes their ashes into the clay and they are turned into beautifully turned pots or urns.

At the beginning of the movie, the audience is introduced to Bok-Soon, played by Go-eun Kim in what is her third film, a mentally challenged woman with the maturity level of a 10 year-old. We learn this later when she meets up with Tae-su’s latest victim and vows to save her. The two females both interact at the same emotional level providing some pretty comedic moments in a film that has quite a few hair raising scenes of murder and mayhem.

Bok-Soon sells vegetables at her late grandmother’s stall. The owner of the pitch where the stall is located keeps trying to get the girl to leave as the lease ended with the old woman’s death. Her sister Eun-jung is planning on going to university and the two sisters bicker about where Bok-Soon will live.

Tae-Su’s older step-brother is asked by a corporate head to take $300,000 to a young girl in exchange for her cell phone footage of his beating the young lady up. The brother takes the money instead and asks his homicidally inclined sibling to get the phone. Tae-Su kills the woman, but cannot find the phone. He takes the 10 year-old sister of the “phone girl” and tells her if she can escape he will spare her life.

The killer also tells the youngster that if she asks anyone for help who cannot overpower him, he will kill them. The child finds Eun-Jung and Bok-Soon and asks for their help. As a result, Eun-Jung is murdered and the mentally challenged Bok-Soon must save the other girl and vows to kill Tae-Su.

Moments in the movie are veritable blood baths. These more horrific moments are then juxtaposed against scenes of comedic integration between the two “10 year-olds.” While these set pieces do not match or even feel like they belong in the same film, the whole thing works in a weird sort of way.

At one point Tae-su’s brother, who is terrified of him, attempts to have the serial killer murdered by a specialist from North Korea. The two men battle and the choreography of the long fight scene is very impressive and looks real. The psychopath wins and later on shows that he is capable of taking on a whole group of South Korean police as well as a group of killers who are all intent on taking him out.

Tae-Su feels a bit like the South Korean version of Michael Myers, or perhaps a Timex watch; this sociopathic murderer can take a licking and keep on ticking. Monster is streaming on Netflix at the moment and is worth a look. It is entertaining in an odd way and there is an urge to watch it to the end, just to see what happens to Bok-Soon. Pay no attention to the details given on Netflix for the film as they do not fit the film either. Fans of South Korean films will recognize the older brother from Memories of Murder and A Bittersweet Life.

Prepare to be perplexed…

A Blood Pledge (2008) Whispering Corridors 5 Review

The last in a series about South Korean all-girl schools, A Blood Pledge also known as Whispering Corridors 5, is the only one set obviously in a Catholic School. It is interesting to note that each film in the series, which are all considered part of the franchise, has a different director and writer.

All have similar themes, an emphasis on friendship and betrayal of same, fierce competition for grades/scores in class, which in turn leads to even more competition to get into a good university.

Girl crushes, teen pregnancy, Korean teenage girls portrayed as bitchy, bullying and overly obsessed with money and class, dysfunctional family units, and betrayal all are part of the franchise formula along with curses, urban myths and of course supernatural occurrences.

The first three films in the series are really the best. In my honest opinion, as the “sequels” continued they borrowed freely from whatever new trends in Asian horror were prevalent at the time of filming or when writing screenplays.

A Blood Pledge is directed by Jong Yong-Lee, who was actually a co-writer on the superior 2002 film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Yong-Lee also wrote the screenplay for A Blood Pledge and the film marks his second time in the director’s chair, his second credit for writing and first feature length film.

Now, despite what IMDb maintains the storyline is; it is not about FOUR friends who make a suicide pact. There are only three who decide to swear an oath that they will die before their time. The mistake seems to have been brought about because a fourth joins the group later, after the blood oath, or pledge, and she is the only one who perishes.

Leader of an elite trio of friends, Eugene, or Eun-Jo, is a manipulative little schemer who does not like losing at anything. As she has been knocked off her spot as student with the highest grade average, mainly because of her “out of school” romance with the rich love rat Ki-ho, she comes up with a plan to knock current leader Yoo-Jin out of the top spot. Her grades have slipped so much that she is no longer in the list of top ten best students.

Eugene kicks an old established member out of her group and woos Yoo-Jin’s best mate Soy into her little trio, with the idea that the former straight A student will become so upset that her grades will drop. The plan backfires when Ki-ho goes after the new girl and in the process, dumps Eugene and impregnates Soy.

Oops!

She then plans to kill Soy, win back Ki-ho and resume her place as top straight A student. Unfortunately everything goes wrong when Yoo-Jin goes over the side of a school building instead of Soy and dies. The dead girl soon begins appearing and her younger sister keeps approaching Soy for answers.

The school, broken into various cliques and class loyalties, is a hotbed of rumors, theories, backbiting and mudslinging between the different factions.

A Blood Pledge is entertaining. Sadly, though, it is not a fitting end to the brilliant trilogy that started the whole thing off. While it does not borrow quite so heavily from the franchise as Voice did for example, the film feels like a poor relative to the series and seems as though it was meant to be a “made for TV” version of the franchise.

It is confusing and hard to follow at times, mainly because of flashbacks and the fact that Eugene, Eun-Jo and Soy resemble each other so much. It would have helped if the director had at least changed their hairstyles a bit. At times other events transpire that never have a real explanation of why or what exactly had been done. The locker scene in particular, you’ll know what I mean when you see it.

Another example is the “evil mother of the rich love rat” car scene. Good stuff, but it did not really fit the motif here…

I would recommend watching A Blood Pledge, and Voice actually, just so you can finish the franchise off. Then sit down and watch the first three and enjoy the best the series has to offer.

That’s it from me this week so until next time, keep watching the movies and have fun!

Here is the video from my YouTube channel where I talk about the film. Enjoy:

22 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Snowpiercer: Chris Evans in Korean Science Fiction Thriller (Review/Trailer)

Snowpiercer: Chris Evans in Korean Science Fiction Thriller (Review/Trailer)

Snowpiercer, the South Korean directed science fiction thriller based on a French graphic novel and starring Chris Evans, was shot in 2012. It was released in 2013 in South Korea and was then shown in just about every country in the world but the U.S. because of the film’s producer Harvey Weinstein.