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Friday, 28 April 2017

The Handmaiden (2016)

Park Chan-wook is a fascinating director -- not exactly prolific but endlessly inventive. I've not seen all of this Korean auteur's films but I'm particularly fond of his 'Vengeance Trilogy': Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003) -- his best-known flick, and "Lady Vengeance" (2005). I didn't much care for his quirky "I'm a Cyborg" (2006) nor his foray into English-language film-making with 2013's "Stoker" (something of a misstep I felt without the exoticism of his usual Korean cast). However, "Thirst" (2009) offered an interesting oriental slant on vampirism and he is back on top form with his latest film above.

He has taken the English novel "Fingersmith" and transported the action from turn-of-the-century England to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s, when mores and attitudes were still firmly 'Victorian'. This very long film is divided into three chapters, each largely (but not entirely) from the perspective of the three main characters. However this is not a latter-day "Rashomon" where we must guess which version is the real truth, but rather a gradual unveiling of a single truth. While we remain transfixed by the aesthetic opulence on display in the film's beautifully-crafted set decoration, make-up, and costuming, we don't immediately realise how we are being 'played' by the different storytellers. We do not know until the very end what or whom to believe.

Ex-pickpocket Sook-Hee is installed as the new personal maid-servant to Japanese-born heiress Lady Hideko on the recommendation of one 'Count' Fujiwara (actually a low-born Korean swindler who is scheming to take control of her fortune). To this end his competition is her elderly Uncle Kouzuki, who also covets his ward. He has kept Hideko isolated on his vast country estate, only letting her surface to read passages from his famous collection of erotica to a lusting audience. He has so far financed his lifestyle by selling the occasional rare book, except he can't bear to be separated from any part of his library and has used Fujiwara to prepare clever forgeries.

The 'Count' wants Sook-Hee to wage a war of attrition, promoting his rare qualities to the na├»ve and trusting Hideko. However a teasing and lustful intimacy soon develops between the two women, as the handmaiden indoctrinates the heiress into the ways of sexual love -- such as a man might expect. Fujiwara's fiendish plan is to elope with Hideko, marry her, and have her confined to a madhouse, leaving him to enjoy the fruits of his wickedness, and having promised Sook-hee a relative pittance for helping him. To escape the unwanted attentions of her Uncle, Hideko eventually agrees to run away with him -- but only if Soon-hee can come as well. However the first chapter ends with the pair depositing the now well-dressed maid at the Dickensian loony-bin pretending that she is in fact the 'mad' Hideko. 

With chapters two and three we continue to gather previously unknown and withheld information about this trio and their interrelationship, leaving us to discover what secret game each of them is playing. At a bum-numbing 145 minutes the film manages to hold the viewer's attention with only minor gaps. One remains hypnotised not just by the gorgeous visuals but for a genuine desire to understand these complicated characters and to discover which of them will receive their just desserts. The true story emerges with Hitchcockian suspense while we are invited meanwhile to wallow in its depravity and raw sex.

It's a masterpiece of film-making which Park might never better, but he probably still has many years ahead of him and may well have further treats in store for us. I do hope so!

Friday, 21 April 2017

Paradise Alley (1962)

My love affair with the Showcase Channel is beginning to fade as they seem to have a limited number of movies in their repertoire, which they keep repeating, and the screenings are interrupted willy-nilly by ads with depressing frequency. However I still have a backlog to get through and hope that some new offerings might surface, so I'm enjoying the channel -- for now. This week I watched a selection of what I can only call French farces -- not quite up to the level of God coming down to earth -- but with some modest entertainment value. First up was "Proper Attire Required" (1997) where a pauper who has wrecked a taxi-driver's Audi is mistakenly supposed to be the feared expected Audi-tor by some corrupt hotel managers, who wine and dine him in error. It was all rather sweet but silly, especially since the script failed to wrap up the fate of some country bumpkins who were trapped in the meat locker and who have probably frozen to death by now.

Even more minor was "Love Vertigo" (2001) where a potential groom develops wedding jitters and envisions various scenarios before the bride backs out of marrying him. The main point of interest was his clandestine love interest played by Julie Gayet, who now sixteen years on has become M. Hollande's paramour. The short movie "Versailles Rive-Gauche" (1992) was also mildly amusing as everyman-schmo Denis Podalydes strives to impress the young lady who has come to dinner, while his mini flat is increasingly invaded by an assortment of family, friends, drunks, and a five-piece band who have lost their rehearsal space.

But on to the above-captioned film which is not to be confused with the later Stallone vehicle of the same title. This is a fascinating little poverty row movie which probably deserves cult status, if only it was not so difficult to access a copy. It was written, directed, and produced by Hugo Haas, who also takes the lead role -- so 'vanity project' doesn't begin to cover it. Haas was a popular Czech film star in the 1930s, but forced to emigrate with the Nazi invasion. He started small in America doing voice-overs in propaganda films and moved on to character parts after the war. When he had earned sufficient dollars, he began churning out his own B-movie potboilers, usually sensationalistic in feel, casting himself in "Blue Angel" scenarios of the older intelligent man who is besotted with a young hussy.

In this his last film -- actually shot in 1958 but not released until 1961/62 -- he changes pace by playing a down-on-his-luck 'actor' who takes lodging in a seedy boarding house in the condemned area of the title. It turns out however that he was once a famed director of classic films, Karl von Stallburg, who was committed to a sanatorium by greedy relatives. On his release, he lands in this quasi-slum where he is horrified by bickering neighbours and would-be juvenile delinquents. By chance one of the lonely residents is a veteran cameraman, played by silent comic Chester Conklin, who has kept his (non-working) camera as a memento, along with other movie memorabilia. Between them they concoct a plan to shoot a documentary in the Alley, provisionally entitled "The Chosen and the Condemned" -- only without any film in the camera. They see this as a means of healing the neighbourhood since of course EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES!

The film is mainly notable for its cast of old-timers which include Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West), Billy Gilbert (known for his sneezing routines and a classic comic foil), Marie Windsor (still a sexpot in her forties), Corinne Griffith (a star of the silent screen), and other even more minor players. Unfortunately the love interest young leads are taken by Don Sullivan (whose two previous roles were in "The Giant Gila Monster" and "Teenage Zombies") and Carol Morris who is credited as "Miss Universe" (Lord knows when!) Despite this mishmash of players the story develops nicely with the enthusiasm of the local residents, eager to shine in this make-believe film. It even manages to heal the ongoing spat between Hamilton and Gilbert when she is cast as a disguised Russian countess whose hand he must kiss. When they finally 'shoot' this scene, it turns out that she has soaked her hand in vinegar, to the general amusement of all.

Since this strange fable is really a sort of fairy tale, some studio bigwigs get wind of the wheeze and offer to finance making the movie a reality, agreeing to put all of these would-be actors on their payroll. Yeah, yeah, yeah! 

Haas is a largely forgotten figure in Hollywood history, but he deserves to be remembered, if only for this unusual swan song.  

Friday, 14 April 2017

Showcase on European Cinema

I am ever on the lookout for new sources for watching relatively obscure foreign-language movies, but every time I find an unheralded satellite channel with imaginative schedules, the channel in question seems to be doomed -- i.e. insufficient viewers to attract the necessary advertisers to support it. The subscription channel CineMoi was a sad instance of this, disappearing up its own whatsit within a year -- and there were earlier instances too.

Therefore I was completely charmed to discover that the hitherto boring channel Showtime now screens what they label "Eurocinema" between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. daily with an hour out for some weird Chinese programme. I discovered this recently when the ShowBiz Channel (showing the occasional film programme of interest) went suddenly out of business -- literally a case of here today and gone tomorrow.  Since there are an inordinate number of minor satellite channels whose listings are considered too obscure to be included in any of the standard newspaper or magazine programme listings, I have made a point once a week to check out the forward schedules on various channels (Talking Pictures, Movies 24, True Movies etc.) on my DigiGuide for which I pay an annual subscription.

With Showbiz disappearing I noticed that I had not checked Showtime for a while since most of their film offerings were in "The Attack of the Giant Leeches" or "I was a Teenaged Caveman" category. So when I checked that channel a few weeks back, I made the happy discovery outlined above. I have no idea when they started this European strand (or how long I've been missing out on it) nor how long it will last given past disappointments. So I am recording as many movies that I've not seen previously to my hard disc and hope to get through these before yet another channel bites the dust.

It's an interesting assortment of films, many of which I've not heard of previously, so I'm looking forward to some happy viewing while this source lasts. So far I've watched the Russian flick "Taxi Blues" (1990) which has been on my 'would like to see' list for a while (I didn't actually reckon it much in the end although it is well thought of) and several very strange short films. However the pick of the bunch so far has been "Let There be Light" (1998) a charming, French fantasy film from director Arthur Joffe, whose filmography is otherwise short and fairly undistinguished.

It seems that God has written a screenplay (as thick as a Bible) and wants to go down to earth to have it filmed. Since the Almighty is invisible, he needs to assume a corporeal presence and moves from body to body (including a cat and a pigeon) as the mood takes him; we can tell where he is at any moment since the host body develops a noticeable eye twitch. In fact his shape-shifting is so volatile that it is hard to keep tract and a number of familiar French faces such as Yolande Moreau and Michael Lonsdale have cameos so brief that they literally pass in the blink of an eye. This taking over of unsuspecting bodies reminded me strongly of the cult horror movie "The Hidden" (1987), but with a very different agenda. God is accompanied throughout by his assistant and sidekick angel played by Ticky Holgado who bemoans that he has not yet received some fully functional wings and who improvises makeshift ones throughout.

Eventually God finds would-be filmmaker Jeanne winningly played by Helene de Fougerolles (another new name to me) who eventually manages to shoot his script despite studio interference from Tcheky Karyo, who is in fact playing the Devil. God is particularly keen on this namesake of Joan of Arc on whom he 'had a crush' and whose fate he has been regretting for centuries. When the finished film is finally screened the audience members are completely charmed since what they are viewing is exactly what each of them would most wish to see in a movie, which of course is different for everyone. Even Karyo can not restrain his laughter and they all go soaring off into the sky, just like the final scene in "Miracle in Milan" (1951). It's a strange but ultimately satisfying film that could only have been made in France. I shudder to think what a U.S remake might be like.

I've also discovered that Showcase has a sister channel, Showcase 3, which is still largely screening B-movies although occasional cult movies like "Beat the Devil" (1953) and "The Great Flamarion" (1945) can be found in their schedules. To my amazement, last week that channel screened "The End of St Petersburg" (1927) which ran 20 minutes longer than my own copy and which also boasted a fine orchestral score -- my previous copy was really a 'silent' movie.

I'll keep my fingers crossed for Showcase. Long may it wave!

Friday, 7 April 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

It's been a while since I was keen on anime based on Japanese manga. My initial enthusiasm for the likes of "Akira" (1988) and "Legend of the Overfiend" (1989) waned sharply and by the time I got around to watching the 1995 anime of the above movie I had just about lost interest. Therefore I can not join the legion of fanboys who claim that this new movie is a complete betrayal of that mind-bending original.

Let's be honest, this Scarlett Johansson starrer is not a remake of the anime, but rather a dumbed down, or to be less pejorative,  a simplified take on the concepts of the original manga. Johansson plays a hybrid human-android warrior trained to fight against cyber-terrorism in a cityscape of the future -- an imaginatively designed amalgam of Tokyo, Hong Kong, and the L.A. of "Blade Runner". She is the invincible Major, a triumph of design by cyber-scientist Juliette Binoche -- a sexless feminine fighting machine or as the New York Times described her "a giant dream Barbie, hairless pubis and all". (One might note here that the same character in the anime had noticeably prominent nipples). The 'ghost' in her shell are her earlier human memories and her soul. The film's poser is 'what is it like to be human in a synthetic body?'

Her sidekick Batou is played by a beefed-up Pilou Asbaek, who like many of the city's denizens has some cyber enhancements, in his case upgraded eyeballs which I found rather disturbing. Johansson must have a soft spot for this Danish actor since he also had a small part in her recent "Lucy". The biggest name in the supporting cast however is the iconic Japanese actor-director Takeshi Kitano who plays the Major's aging controller. It's fascinating that all of his dialogue is in subtitled Japanese while everyone else speaks English, but I guess in a cyber-society everyone has the built-in facility for instantaneous translations. There are a few agreeable nods to his own penchant for stylish violence. For example when the big baddy sends his goons to try to assassinate him, he makes short work of them quipping that it is pointless to send rabbits to kill a fox. Otherwise the cast was filled out with little-known players -- but then again it is really Scarlett's show.

Directed by ad-man Rupert Sanders, whose previous film "Snow White and the Huntsman" was singularly underwhelming, he has produced along with a technical staff of thousands a feast of eye candy. With incredibly inventive cinematography and visuals one can predict the movie's winning a number of technical Oscars, but the film itself is far from coherent or thrilling. The nub of the story is that the Major was the first successful prototype after a slew of failures and the corporation behind her are really only interested in her kind as weapons of mass destruction. Johansson continues here with her action roles from the Marvel movies and her idiosyncratic sci-fi roles that began with "Lucy" and "Under the Skin". However, none of these movies do much to spotlight her acting chops.

Another hoo-hah has been that the role should have been given to an oriental actress rather than a dishy Caucasian. This complaint is a little idiotic since the heroines in manga anime seldom look remotely oriental. The writers have addressed the controversy by suggesting that Major's original 'ghost' was in fact Japanese and that she has had false memories implanted, but I doubt that this argument is sufficient to satisfy the nay-sayers.

All in all this was an enjoyable movie to watch largely because of the ravishing visuals. I think a neat little analogy lurks here. The 'ghost' of the first challenging film can be found in the 'shell' of this second simplified extravaganza.