Park Chan-wook’s sensual psychodrama “The Handmaiden” begins in the epic bowels of conflict and strife, but it’s truly a cloistered affair where nothing is as it seems, growing increasingly more constricted over its nearly two and half hours. It holds its rapturous tease over us with scrumptious visuals, artful poise and dips into kink and gore that would give the Marquis de Sade reason to smile. Most remarkable, however, is that Park, best know for the violent tale of liberation and atonement, “Oldboy” (2003), part of his infamous “Vengeance Trilogy,” transposes Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith,” a Victorian-era feminist romance, to Japan-occupied Korea in the 1930s. It’s not the first time the Seoul-based auteur has adopted foreign-penned work – his 2009 vampire tale of self-repression, “Thirst,” was in fact based on Emile Zola’s “Therese Raquin.”
The term “fingersmith” refers to either a midwife or a pickpocket. Given the film’s title you might assume the former, and we start off by meeting Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), a young Korean who tends to infants whose fates are more likely dictated by matters of profit than the kindness of charity. But the reality is it’s both – and fingers in general play a large part throughout. Sook-Hee’s plucked from among the nannies by the dashing Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to become handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), who lives in a stately manse that would be a perfect fit for a Merchant-Ivory project. As quaint as this all is, we learn quickly that all is not that tidy and proper; Fujiwara isn’t Japanese, or even a nobleman – just a shrewd opportunist trying to get ahead during tumultuous times, and Sook-Hee, for all her nurturing, wholesome innocence, has a past of using her dexterously light fingers for illicit gains. Continue reading
What is it about superhero movies that takes top-shelf thespians and reduces them to two-dimensional ashes? Patrick Stewart was able to maintain his poise in “X-Men,” and Robert Downey Jr. formed an amiably snarky extension of himself as brash billionaire Tony Stark in “Iron Man,” but mostly actors slap on the muscle suit and spout platitudes. Don’t get me wrong – I love seeing Chris Evans square-jawed and righteous as Captain America, but what’s he like first thing in the morning? Is he a grump, does he loosen up after two beers, and does he ever have a bad hair day? Answers mortals need if they’re to relate.
For all their power and pop, these tales of the übermensch are pretty pat affairs; backstory and arch-villain, that’s how they go, a two-step do-si-do. “Doctor Strange,” sadly, is no exception, despite the more cerebral and human orientation of its protagonist and the inspired casting of Sherlock Holmes himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, as the doctor. It’s not for Cumberbatch’s lack of effort, but anytime you have a team of writers – three, in this case – tying to communally distill the tortured essence of an uber-being grappling with a newly acquired superpower, loss of former self and world annihilation by some unhinged megalomaniac with his hand on the button and a battalion of minions on call, you’re in a dark place. And we’re not talking about inner conflict.
The film begins promisingly enough, with Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stephen Strange showing off his cutting-edge skill as a neurosurgeon – grandiloquently so. He’s an arrogant can-do with a god complex, and would either bond immediately with Downey’s Tony Stark at a cocktail reception or get locked in a nasty head-to-head vying for the alpha male spot. Everything’s hunky-dory – there’s even playful banter and a spark of romance with the fetching, overworked ER doc (Rachel McAdams) – until Strange’s Lamborghini goes off the road, the result of distracted driving (looking at cranial scans while bobbing and weaving at 100 mph). In the crash, the doc’s life-saving hands are shattered, recovery is frustratingly slow and no procedure, no matter how experimental, can get him back to his scalpel jockey self. Broke and broken, Strange heads off to Kathmandu after hearing of a mystic cult where the mind heals the body. Continue reading