🎬 #21 Gorgeous, Twisted Asian Fantasy.
Asian cinema is a special kind of cinema. It can be many things all at once and it can do so seamlessly. Shocking, hilarious, moving, all within an edit or two. As if a sly projectionist stitched their favourite films together away from the watching eye of the cinema manager.
But what these films might do best of all is portray the deep dark corners of desire, the twisted parts, that a lot of us wouldn’t like to admit we possess. They are fearless, going where few films would ever dare. One of the choices this week in particular remains in a rarified place in film history. Prepare to feel uncomfortable but also enraptured.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: THE HANDMAIDEN
2016 Dir Park Chan Wook
I first saw this at the BFI Film Festival early one Sunday morning and it was one hell of an unexpected start to a quiet bright day. Park Chan Wook’s richly woven tale of love and duplicity is sumptuous to behold. The unlikely, blossoming love affair between Lady Hideko and Sook-He [the girl hired as her Handmaiden] is rendered vibrantly and bodily - both bold and tender. An accidental meeting of flesh and spirit created through a scam that is meant to lead to the deception and eventual robbing of the Lady by the fraudulent Count Fujiwara.
The restrictive period dress, the traditional rule and her imposed solitude brought about by her oppressive, cruel and unusual Uncle makes their love feel all the more librating once it happens. But first there is the longing, the innocence, the build-up, which is most wryly brought to screen in a moment involving her handmaiden’s finger and the Lady’s, wet, open mouth. The restraint punctured by bold visual metaphor apt for an inspired adaptation of a British novel ‘Fingersmith.’
Wook’s masterful, graceful staging, both of camera and of the overall design of the picture - creates a lavish backdrop for this rapturous love affair. As intricate as the etchings and drawings contained in her Uncle’s erotic novel collection. And with her Uncles comes that Wook trademark, the fantastical darkness he’s most known for glistens into play. The film itself could be a story contained in her Uncle’s collection. The deep reaction’s conjured up in the film’s audience reflected in the groups of men who listen to these erotic stories read aloud.
It’s a film of two halves. The build up and desire rendered in the first half takes an astonishing turn that makes everything we’ve just seen all the more interesting. With the revelation comes the realisation that so much more was happening in even the simplest moments shared between the two - and once you go down to the cellar that’s when the grim reality really hits.
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hr 25 mins of my precious life watching this? Experience Park Chan Wook’s dive into love, with all its messiness, double-crossing and humanity. Watch out for the aquatic life cameo that will leave you conjuring up more dark images than even Park Chan Wook could.
*Available for free on Netflix, Channel 4 and BFI Player.
Fact: This would becomes Park Chan Wook’s highest grossing film in the US.
FILM TWO: IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES
1976 Dir Nagisa Ôshima
This film is best gone into without reading anything about it. It's as compelling and mystifying as its beautifully translated title. From the opening, your jaw is on the floor not just because you’re thinking how did they ever get away with this, but by the astonishing power of the imagery. This is a film that paints in ravishing big bold colours the theme of obsessive, all consuming love. What the French might call Amour Fou. I still can’t believe they were able to make and release this film. But for all its shock it remains beautiful. It’s not playing up any seediness - it’s displaying the emotions these characters feel for each other - physically, through imagery and action. It’s not pornographic - it’s cinematic.
In fact I remember seeing an interview with the head of the British Board of Film Certification, who at the time, didn't want to give the film an X rating. He said it was a ‘work of art,’ it just happened to be in the shape of sex. The passion, the eroticism captured in the vibrant production design and the tight close-ups of the two entangled in the love affair create an atmosphere that feels intoxicating, like a dark fantasy we’ve had about things we’ve always wanted to try, but could never admit, even to ourselves. We can’t help but feel compelled by it even if we’re nervously laughing at the graphic-ness of it.
This is a love story in the truest sense of the word. What we see almost in every scene is a display of ‘love,’ the physicality of it. It’s a tale as bold and fearless as anything you’ve ever seen - it goes there and then goes beyond into a finale you can hardly believe happened. Two people caught up in an almost supernatural bond brings to light a story that feels more like one of addiction than of romance. But we all know that’s what true romance feels like - it’s a rush, both bodily and mentally, ‘I can’t stop thinking of you,’ the common phrase associated with falling in love. And the characters in this film, Kichizo and Sada, literally can’t stop being with each other. The film creates a space where anything could happen, it feels like somewhere separate from the rest of the world and this feels like a film separate from all others.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 49 mins of my precious life watching this? A graphically told love story that ends in pure obsession, a study in Amour Fou that leaves you as breathlessly tied up as the two leads.
*Available for free on Criterion.
Fact: All the love scenes in the film are real - nothing is simulated.