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Sapphic Swoon: Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) – Blu-ray review

August 2, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Here’s a Brit-lit adaptation you won’t mistake for the BBC1 Sunday night slot. Park turns up the heat on everything: sex, violence, subtext and style.

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The Handmaiden
(Park Chan-wook, 2016)

Park Chan-wook’s career has underdone one of the most interesting transition over the past decade, from the purveyor of brutal revenge thrillers to the consummate stylist of Gothic romances.  This isn’t as strange a shift as it might first appear: the likes of Oldboy show a keen knowledge of Jacobean tragedy, while his English-language debut, Stoker, was still steeped in blood.

For The Handmaiden, Park has adapted a bona-fide gem of English Literature, but rather than look to Austen or Dickens, he’s chosen Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ contemporary, subversive riff on Victoriana, with its taboo blend of lesbian sex and crime.  It’s a reasonably faithful adaptation, although one in which he’s made some cunning changes so as to emphasise the fusion of form and content he started in Stoker and perfects here.

This is a lush, ornate vision of affluence, with a rapt grandeur to the production design and costumes.  Yet Park is more concerned with what’s going on behind the trinkets and garments, and not only when it comes to the copious sex scenes.  Like the Japanese-style sliding doors, whose thin walls let people see shadows and hear echoes, it’s a film of deceptive surfaces, and his camerawork glides to gain the best vantage point.  In the knotted flashbacks of the second act, he literally shifts position to give a fresh perspective on supposedly familiar events.

By setting the tale during Japan’s occupation of Korea, Park adds to Waters’ critique of power.  He retains the device of a rich pervert cataloguing vintage pornography, but it isn’t just about patriarchy in this context but a wider vision of mastery and servitude, in which Korean genuflection to Japan is a moral failing.  Only when the servant becomes her boss’ equal can this be righted – and that’s where the ladies’ love affair comes in.

So the film becomes a neat balance between its own surface pleasures – the storytelling has a crisp, Hitchcockian precision – and its political subtext.  Inevitably, this being Park, there’s only so long he can hold the pose of an elegant period drama.  By the end, the fanbase he’s brought with him since Oldboy can delight in a Grand Guignol torture sequence (complete with a cameo by an octopus!) while fans of exploitation movies can thrill to just about the loveliest, most romantic ‘love beads’ sequences in cinema.

The Handmaiden is released on Blu-ray on Monday 7th August.  A special 2-disc set also includes Park’s extended cut.

Welcome To Finland: Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side Of Hope (2017) – Blu-ray review

July 19, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Kaurismäki finds the funny side – eventually – to the refugee crisis, in a film whose bittersweet tone is gatecrashed by typically brilliant, deadpan slapstick.

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The Other Side Of Hope
(Aki Kaurismäki, 2017)

“Finland is a good country,” says Khaled (Sherwan Haji), the Syrian applying for asylum in the Scandinavian country.  And, for anybody who has seen the work of Aki Kaurismäki, goodness is synonymous with Finland.  Films such as The Man Without A Past have revolved around the kindness of strangers and the restorative balm of rock and roll.  Even his last film, the French-set Le Havre, showed that this spirit crossed borders.

In The Other Side Of Hope, though, there’s a darker, less optimistic tone.  Like Le Havre, this sees a local – restaurant owner Wikström (Kaurismäki regular Sakari Kuosmanen) – take in a refugee rather than see him deported.  But this crucial incident takes place halfway through the new film.   True, Wikström and Khaled’s paths do cross, briefly, in the opening moments, but then their parallel stories run separately for over half the film.

It’s quite a contrast.  Khaled faces a life on hold, with the endless bureaucracy leavened only by the Arabic-speaking community in the refugee centre.  He’s desperate to settle so he can provide an end destination for his AWOL sister, but everything is hard – including the supposed enlightened, welcoming attitudes of the state.  These sequences are Kaurismäki without a lot of humour – for once, his style is deadpan because there isn’t much to laugh about – but still full of warmth and affection.

For Wikström, though, it’s practically a parody of Kaurismäki.  At rock bottom after separating from his wife, Wikström simply walks away and starts again.  He sells his shirt business, boosts his earnings at the poker table and then buys a restaurant, complete with diffident but reliable staff.  Life’s a lottery, and Wikström comes out on top whatever he does, even down to the ill-advised relaunch of his restaurant as a sushi bar.  This is pure comedy gold, one of the funniest sequences Kaurismäki has ever done – with the hangdog acting style, sardonic tableaux and exaggerated production design, complete with incongruous portrait of Jimi Hendrix on the wall, a far cry from the more realistic tone of Khaled’s half of the story.

Remarkably, Kaurismäki melds the two stories together, linked by his generosity of spirit and the inevitable live performances by Finnish blues musicians.  The fragile intersection is a reminder that the other side of hope is, of course, despair.  For Khaled, shunned by the authorities and prey to neo-Nazis – clearly, not everybody got the memo about Finland being a good country – it’d be easy to cave in.  Yet the film has let him into Wikström (and, by extension, Kaurismäki’s) world, and it’s a lovely, hopeful place to be.

The Other Side Of Hope is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 24th July.

Countryfail: Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling (2016) – Blu-ray review

July 13, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Cold Comfort Farm: the Unrated Edition – a mournful elegy for a rural community left to sink in the mud, with only rage and despair for company.

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The Levelling
(Hope Dickson Leach, 2016)

American cinema has created an entire genre – the Western – to celebrate its vast, untamed landscapes.  In Britain, the acres of land given over to agriculture have made it much harder to forge a lasting on-screen legacy.  In reality, British filmmakers tend to disregard it entirely, unless it’s as a place where unspeakable horrors take place well outside the suburban norm.

Fair play to Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling, then, for taking a fresh look beyond the A-roads.  This is an unsentimental, cool-headed depiction of the divide between city and countryside, and the terrible impact this fractured relationship has on the psyche of generations who give their lives to the soil only to be ignored by the population their labours help to feed.

There’s plenty of thought gone into the creation of a family facing untold pressures.  They’ve been left to fend for themselves over rural flooding – the insurance company won’t pay out and the fields are full of glass.  On the other hand, the law leaves them at the risk of contaminated livestock or prosecution for illegally culling badgers.  No wonder farmer Aubrey (David Troughton) is struggling to pass on the farm to his son Harry, even before the latter’s death by shotgun blast – an accident, or suicide?

While these are themes that percolate the news agenda, there’s little that is overtly political on screen, because Dickson Leach has reframed them as a modern spin on a timeless tragedy.  Our entry point is Clover (Ellie Kendrick), the prodigal daughter who has moved away to study veterinary medicine and returns for her brother’s funeral to find her childhood home in freefall.  That leads to strained relations with her dad, whose push/pull feelings have been exacerbated by repressed grief over the death of his wife, and now his son.  He wants her to help on the farm, but he paid for the education that took her away because he knows it’s no life for a youngster in the 21st century.

So the film captures both the timelessness of the countryside and the very modern challenges it faces.  Visually, this might be a Hardy adaptation in shots of wildlife or countryside walks, but Dickson Leach strips the film of glamour.  If British towns have kitchen sink realism, then this is septic tank realism, where a girl might be asked to shoot a calf for having the temerity to be born a boy.

And the acting is phenomenal.  Troughton has never had an opportunity like this on the big screen, and turns Aubrey into an ineffectual tyrant, using passive-aggressive neediness to keep his livelihood afloat.  And Kendrick is extraordinary as a capable, intelligent woman whose psychological demons come flooding back the longer she spends in the place she’s spent a live trying to escape from.

The Levelling is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 17 July.

 

Postwar Playfulness: Francois Ozon’s Frantz (2016) – Blu-ray review

July 7, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Will the real François Ozon please stand up?  The simplicity of Frantz’s story hides an astonishing tonal, emotional and formal range.

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Frantz
(François Ozon, 2016)

You never know what you’re going to get from a film by the prolific, versatile François Ozon… which is quite handy when it comes to Frantz, a film built around the lies we tell others, and ourselves.  Built around the chassis of a 1932 Ernst Lubitsch melodrama, Broken Lullaby, it’s a film that looks like a bleak, austere drama but is achingly romantic.

It’s set in Germany in the aftermath of World War One, a place that has the icy, grey formalism of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon.  Here, a nation grieves for its fallen soldiers and harbours nationalistic resentment against France for defeating it.  But the arrival of Adrien (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman come to pay his respects to his late friend, Frantz Hoffmeister, softens the attitudes of the dead man’s family, and especially his fiancée Anna (Paula Beer), who is smitten by the stranger.

The film is equally smitten, as Adrien’s memories of Frantz bring vivid colour to the Hoffmeisters’ lives.  Literally so: Anna steps out of her monochrome grief into an idyllic landscape, in an unbroken shot that gradually flushes with colour  – a masterclass in using modern technology to achieve a swooning, old-fashioned high.  Yet the technical trickery is also a smart piece of Brechtian foreshadowing, for Adrien isn’t exactly what he seems.

Ozon has always been a genre chameleon, and here gets to hide films within films.  As Anna decides to start telling lies herself, Frantz becomes an ironic vision of the benefits of fantasy over harsh reality, but it’s also a sincere story of forgiveness, and how goodwill depends on being selective with the facts.  This is all disguised as a period detective story with something of the feel of Vertigo, down to the Hermann-esque score, but it also has the cadences of a good weepie, aided by the lustrous filming of the soulful, wide-eyed central couple.

It’s also a piercing, sad and wise view of the horrible effects of war and the corrosive effect of patriotism.  Early on, Ozon tips his hat to the rise of Nazism by showing a meeting of beer-swilling townsfolk, burning with rage and planning a return to German glory.  Yet a later scene in Paris flips this on its head as Anna is trapped in a spontaneous café recital of La Marseillaise.  In Casablanca, the same scenario is a cause for heart-swelling pride – but here, it’s just as insidious, creepy and uncomfortable as any other nation’s xenophobia.

Frantz is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 10 July.

 

Transcendental Transplant – Katell Quillévéré’s Heal The Living (2016) – Blu-ray review

June 29, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

By favouring a sober, scientific treatment of the transplant process, Quillévéré avoids easy sentimentality but still stirs heart and soul.

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Heal The Living
(Katell Quillévéré, 2016)

Boy has tragic car accident; the doctors have to tell his parents that their son is brain-dead and, by the way, would they consider donating his organs?  Put like that, Heal The Living could be any number of medical dramas.  Structurally, it even begins like an episode of Casualty, before unfurling in another, vastly more interesting and resonant direction.  Because this is, simply, the best episode of Casualty there’s ever been.

Katell Quillévéré’s conceit is a simple but soulful one – to follow the film’s heart, literally so.  Other movies have used the idea of an object that passes from character to character: the gun in Winchester ’73, for example, or the earrings of Madame De… Yet something about the fragility of a human heart, the ethical and emotional contours that this situation inevitably takes, makes this a moving, even humbling affair.

Not for Quillévéré the melodrama of 21 Grams, with its near-mystical sense of the ties that bind the donor and the recipient.  Quillévéré finds something more miraculous in the sheer process of a transplant.  Yes, this is a film that conjures up the odd vision of transcendence (the sensation of surfing a big wave, a romantic daydream in the middle of a long shift at the hospital) but only to say – isn’t the fact that a heart can be transplanted itself transcendent?

So the film gently follows the operation, first introducing Simon Limbres, the unfortunate teenager whose sporting talent and budding romance are cut brutally short in a car accident.  We meet his parents and the doctors who are keeping his body alive (Tahar Rahim’s co-ordinator is the nearest this ensemble has to a central figure) and then Quillévéré takes flight, journeying from Le Havre to Paris to meet Claire (Xavier Dolan regular Anne Dorval), a middle-aged mother whose own career as a musician, and relationship with a colleague, have themselves been put on hold by a degenerative heart disease.

The threads are delicately woven, never overstated but with each character given just enough emphasis to embrace both the tangible and philosophical dimensions of their interrelation.  When Quillévéré throws in even the agency who co-ordinate the logistics of matching Simon’s organs to different donors, there’s a remarkable matter-of-factness – and yet also real power to these connections.

The filming is restrained to the point of simplicity, but the weight of each cut (an apt word in this context) gives a comforting, compelling rhythm to the ritual of the transplant.  There is respect and reverence for everybody along the chain.  And occasionally, Quillévéré lets the shot show the view from a vehicle – the windscreen of the van in which Simon died, the airplane transporting his heart to its new owner – to underline the forward momentum, the hope and optimism that this story has even in tragedy.  The extra element is a soaring, sorrowful piano score by Alexandre Desplat: remarkably, one of the best of this most agile and prolific composer.

Heal The Living is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 3 July.  The only extra is a short but useful interview with Quillévéré.

 


 

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