The Handmaiden is the screening chosen for the London Film Festival’s ‘Dare’ Gala, and it’s not difficult to see why. It boasts the twisting plots, inventive camerawork, and very, very explicit set-pieces expected of Park Chan-wook (Oldboy). As a bare outline, the film follows Sook-Hee (Kim Tai-Ri), a Korean embarking as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee), who’s set to marry the rich Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), much to Sook-Hee’s displeasure. It’s a film better viewed with minimal information, such are the intricacies of a tightly-woven plot that manages to hold it all together, despite some third-act redundancies. The visually arresting imagery and gorgeous production design offers authenticity to a 1930s Korean setting, while its script balances dark humour and intense uneasiness with aplomb. Wildly entertaining throughout, and gorgeous to look at, The Handmaiden is a film that will engross all but the squirmish.
Sharing The Handmaiden’s unease, if not its ferocious enjoyability, Paul Verhoeven’s (Total Recall) Elle is an odd blend of jet-black humour and unsettling subject matter. Centering around rape, and how Isabelle Huppert’s titular character deals with this experience as the victim, the film lugs by aimlessly, having not much to say about its weighty premise. Instead, Verhoeven’s primary ambition is to shock the viewer, and while in the past these controversies feel earned, here it’s as manufactured as Elle herself. There’s a clear intent to contradict stereotypes associated with rape victims, but this is clumsily-handled to the point where Elle feels fake and erratic. Huppert herself gives a strong performance, and the script fares better when favouring a macabre comedic tone, but it’s difficult to care about any of the thinly-written characters, especially when there’s so many to keep track of.
Manchester by the sea
Despite how unassuming a film Kenneth Lonergan’s latest effort is, it’s generating an increasing amount of Oscar buzz, and for good reason: Manchester by the Sea is one of the most mature examinations of the human condition in quite some time. The film follows Lee (Casey Affleck), a handyman forced to parent his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother’s (Kyle Chandler) untimely death. As Lee experiences the trepidations of being a parent, his past unravels via various flashbacks seamlessly interwoven with the narrative. The film feels small, owing to its understated camerawork, yet still astonishes – a powerful revelation halfway through sheds new, brutal light on Lee’s restricted mannerisms. Affleck, like the rest of the cast, executes his character perfectly. It’s a reserved, heartbreaking performance, aided by a script that refuses to manipulate. For all the potential for Manchester by the Sea to become cloying tedius, Lonergan has created a mellow masterpiece.