Mixed media: film reviews

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Park Chan-wook's film adaptation is as smart, sumptuous and sexy as Waters' original

The Handmaiden

Directed and co-written by Park Chan-wook. 145 minutes

Japanese soldiers march past a group of women and howling babies on a street corner. A young woman hands over a baby, and another – her sister? – cries that it should be her leaving. Where? To become a maid in a distant country house. Is the sister selfless and anxious, or angry and jealous? This, though, is a film where little is what it seems to be.

The maid is in fact a fingersmith, or pickpocket, brought up by a baby-farmer and in league with a counterfeiter and fake aristocrat. He, she believes, plans to seduce the lady of the house for her inheritance, from under the nose of her wicked uncle, who himself plans to marry his niece for her money.

You may recognize the corny plot – from Fingersmith, Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ clever, twisting, gripping, Victorian-era tale of patriarchy and liberation. Director Park is best known for Oldboy, a cult-classic South Korean horror that has an octopus eaten alive, yet with a serious point to make about self-discovery and liberation. The Handmaiden is restrained, though with macabre moments, including a torture scene with a rather large symbolic octopus. But his and co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong’s shift to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea nicely overlays cultural cringe and narrowness, which convincingly grounds the plot twists and deceptions.

The result is smart, sumptuous and stirring, and as sexy and serious as Waters’ novel.

★★★★ ML

Frantz

Love object Adrien has a confession to make

Directed and co-written by François Ozon. 113 minutes

Two women tend a grave. Its occupant is Frantz, a German soldier killed in the trenches in World War One, now ended. The women are Magda, his mother, and Anna, his fiancée. Anna is shocked when a young man appears, visits the grave, leaves flowers. He’s Adrien, a pensive Frenchman and former soldier. He’s staying at a local inn and tells Anna that he and Frantz had become close friends when, before the war, Frantz had studied music in Paris. Frantz’s father is hostile – ‘Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer’. The crowd at the inn are as bitter. Someone sends Adrien a model coffin and he’s attacked in the street.

Ozon makes a lot of films and his outstanding theme is a young woman’s self-discovery and emergence. Here he has adapted Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 melodrama Broken Lullaby but shifts the focus from the Frenchman to Anna who, inevitably, falls for her former lover’s friend. As do Magda and Herr Doktor. Then Adrien makes a confession to Anna which changes everything, and he leaves. When, for many months, she hears nothing from him, she too heads to France.

Mostly in black and white, occasional scenes in colour jolt us from a broken world to the real, rounder, variegated world, tantalizingly offering possibilities. Eloquent, benevolent and beautiful; anti-nationalist, anti-isolationist, anti-war, this is a film for our time. And the final scene, in colour, is really marvellous.

★★★ ML

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