Schoolgirl Complex (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Yuichi Onuma, 2013)

Schoolgirl Complex is a popular photo book featuring the work of Yuki Aoyama and does indeed focus on that most most Japanese of fixations – the school girl and her iconic uniform. Aoyama’s book presents itself as taking the POV of a teenage boy, gazing longly from a position of total innocence at the unattainable female figures who, in the book, are entirely faceless. Given a more concrete narrative, this filmic adaptation (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Schoolgirl Complex Housoubu-hen) directed by Yuichi Onuma takes a slightly different tack in dispensing with high school boys altogether for a tale of self discovery and sexual confusion set in an all girls school in which almost everyone has a crush on someone, but sadly finds only adolescent suffering as so eloquently described by Osamu Dazai whose Schoolgirl informs much of the narrative.

About to become head of the broadcast club when the school leavers depart after the culture festival, Manami (Aoi Morikawa) has developed a fascination for Chiyuki (Mugi Kadowaki) whose mysterious figure she finds herself watching from hidden places even though they’ve never met. She is therefore both delighted and alarmed when Chiyuki suddenly joins her broadcast club but becomes flustered enough to tell her she doesn’t need to bother coming to any of the meetings if she doesn’t feel like it – much to the consternation of the other members. Neglecting her best friend Ai (Maaya Kondo), Manami grows closer to Chiyuki whose avoidance of a previous best friend and out of school troubles including a no good older boyfriend are all causes for concern when it comes to her growing feelings. Chiyuki, blowing hot and cold, continues to cause trouble both for herself and everyone else as she finds herself conflicted over who she is and what she really wants.

As in Dazai’s book, there’s a lot of hiding, waiting, watching and suffering at the heart of Schoolgirl Complex. Slightly unusually the school environment does seem to be a strangely progressive one in which same sex attraction is more or less normalised despite the shyness and confusion manifesting among the girls. Love is declared loudly and dramatically in the school corridors with no seeming consequences save perhaps embarrassment and heartbreak for the unlucky girl who finds herself rejected. There are a set of four girls with apparent crushes on each other, returned or otherwise, and there is no further mention of boys or dating outside of Chiyuki’s boyfriend who turns up to steal her away by car but also demands she bring him money. Aside from the general adolescent diffidence, there does not seem to be additional anxiety or personal angst around the idea of same sex love save for Chiyuki’s lament that she can’t make proper friends because everyone turns out to be a lesbian and wants more out the relationship than she can give them.

Rather than the teenage boy POV adopted by the photo book, Onuma’s camera is perhaps intended to capture that of Manami as she finds herself experiencing complicated feelings towards her classmate. Accordingly the camera lingers sensuously over sun beaten, sweaty flesh, and long legs under short skirts as Onuma explores Manami’s burgeoning desires but cannot avoid the tendency towards fetishisation which the title implies.

To its credit, Schoolgirl Complex is not the film which one might presuppose it to be. It’s no schoolgirls gone wild exploitation fest or a shy boy’s yearning for female contact, but its melancholy message that adolescence is difficult for everyone is a somewhat flat one even given its obvious triteness. During the climactic performance at the cultural festival a huge and very public declaration is made but gathers absolutely no reaction save an “I knew it!” from the control booth. Rejections all round seem to reinforce female bonding as the girls continue on in friendship with Dazai’s words that this will all seem funny when they’ve grown up ringing in their ears. The tone of total acceptance is a warm and refreshing one but perhaps a little unrealistic in its uncomplicated approach to a complicated area of personal development. Nevertheless, though Schoolgirl Complex’s attempt to redefine itself as a painful story of youth rings hollow its sympathetic treatment of its suffering teenage romantics is worthy of applause.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Hitoshi Yazaki, 1980)

Even in the Japan of 1980, many kinds of love are impossible. Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Kazetachi no gogo), the indie debut from Hitoshi Yazaki follows just one of them as a repressed gay nursery nurse falls hopelessly in love with her straight roommate. Based on a salacious newspaper report of the time, Afternoon Breezes is a textbook examination of obsessive unrequited love as its heroine is drawn ever deeper into a spiral of inescapable despair and incurable loneliness.

Nursery nurse Natsuko (Setsuko Aya) is in love with her hairdresser roommate Mitsu (Naomi Ito), who seems to be completely oblivious of her friend’s feelings. Mitsu has a boyfriend, Hideo (Hiroshi Sugita), and the relationship is becoming serious enough to have Natuko worried. Hideo, unlike Mitsu, is pretty sure Natsuko is a lesbian and in love with his girlfriend but finds the situation amusing more than anything else. Beginning to go out of her mind with frustration, Natsuko tries just about everything she can to break Mitsu and Hideo up including introducing him to another pretty girl from the nursery, Etsuko (Mari Atake). Hideo is not exactly a great guy and shows interest in Etsuko though does not seem as intent on leaving Mitsu as Natsuko had hoped. Desperate times call for desperate measures and so Natsuko steels herself against her revulsion of men and seduces Hideo on the condition that he end things with her beloved Mitsu. He does, but the plan goes awry when Natsuko realises she is pregnant with Hideo’s child.

Less about lesbianism and more about love which can never be returned slowly eroding a mind, Afternoon Breezes perfectly captures the hopeless fate of its heroine as she idly dreams a future for herself which she knows she will never have. Natsuko buys expensive gifts for roommate, returns home with flowers and courts her in all of the various ways a shy lover reveals themselves but if Mitsu ever recognises these overtures for what they are she never acknowledges them. Her boyfriend, Hideo, seems more worldly wise and makes a point of cracking jokes about Natsuko, asking Mitsu directly if her friend has a crush on her but Mitsu always laughs the questioning off. Mitsu may know on some level that Natsuko is in love with her, she seems to be aware of her distaste for men even if she tries to take her out to pick one up, but if she does it’s a truth she does not want to own and when it is finally impossible to ignore she will have nothing to do with it.

Despite Mitsu’s ongoing refusal to confront the situation, Natsuko basks in idealised visions of domesticity as she and Mitsu enjoy a romantic walk in the rain only to have their reverie interrupted by a passing pram containing a newborn baby. What Natsuko wants is a conventional family life with Mitsu, including children. After their walk, the pair adopt a pet mouse which Natsuko comes to think of as their “baby” but like a grim harbinger of her unrealisable dream, the mouse dies leading Mitsu to bundle it into a envelope and leave it on a rubbish heap along with Natsuko’s heart and dreams for the future.

When her colleagues at the nursery get stuck into the girl talk and ask Natsuko about boyfriends, her response is that she would not “degrade” herself yet that is exactly what she finally resorts to in an increasingly desperate effort to get close to Mitsu. After her attempts to get him to fall for another girl fail, Natsuko’s last sacrificial offering is her own body, surrendered on the altar of love as she pleads with the heartless Hideo to leave Mitsu for good. Though her bodily submission is painful to watch in her obvious discomfort her mental degradation has been steadily progressing as Hideo deliberately places himself between the two women, even going so far as to disrupt a seaside holiday planned for two by inviting himself along.

Yazaki perfectly captures Natsuko’s ever fracturing mental state through the inescapable presence of the dripping tap in the girls’ apartment which becomes a dangerous ticking in Natsuko’s time bomb mind. Occasionally gelling with clocks and doors and other oppressive noises, the internal banging inside Natsuko’s head only intensifies as she’s forced to endure the literal banging of Mitsu and Hideo’s lovemaking during her romantic getaway. Just as an earlier scene found Natsuko sitting on the swing outside embracing the flowers she’d brought for Mitsu only to find Hideo already there, Natsuko’s fate is to be perpetually left out in the cold, eventually resorting to rifling through her true love’s rubbish and biting into a half eaten apple in a desperate attempt at contact.

Natsuko’s love is an impossible one, not only because Mitsu is unable to return it, but because it is essentially unembraceable. In a society where her love is a taboo, Natsuko is not able to voice her desires clearly or live in an ordinary, straightforward way but is forced to act with clandestine subtly. After Hideo unwittingly deflowers her and laughs about it, stating that she “must really be gay” Natsuko lunges at him with a knife, suddenly overburdened with one degradation too many. Though the prospect of the baby may raise the possibility of a happy family, albeit an unconventional one, the signs point more towards funerals than christenings, so devoid of hope does Natsuko’s world seem to be. Shot in a crisp 16mm black and white, Afternoon Breezes owes an obvious debt to the art films of twenty years before with its long takes, static camera giving way to handheld, and flower filled conclusion, but adds an additional layer of youthful anxiety as its heroines find themselves moving into a more prosperous, socially liberal age only to discover some dreams are still off limits.


 

Ashamed (창피해, AKA Life is Peachy, Kim Soo-hyun, 2011)

ashamedOne of the very earliest films to address female same sex love in Korea, Ashamed (yes, really, but not quite – we’ll get to this later, 창피해, Changpihae, retitled Life is Peachy for US release) had a lot riding on it. Perhaps too much, but does at least manage to outline a convincing, refreshingly ordinary failed love romance even if hampered by a heavy handed structuring device and a lack of chemistry between its leading ladies.

Beginning in the film’s “present”, embittered art professor Jung Ji-woo (Kim Sang-hyeon) is auditioning models for an art project, whereupon she bonds with two students currently undergoing some kind of unresolved drama of their own. Hee-jin (Seo Hyun-jin), Jung’s pupil, has roped in her friend also coincidentally named (Youn) Ji-woo (Kim Hyo-jin) who, as she recounts in a lengthy flashback, she met in odd circumstances whilst drinking with layabouts in an alley. Eventually, Youn Ji-woo confessed to her that she’s attracted to people of the same sex, which has left Hee-jin feeling kind of awkward.

Trying to console her student, Jung encourages the younger woman to recount the story of her own great yet failed romance with a pickpocket named, yes, again (Kang) Ji-woo (Kim Kkobbi). Youn had been leading a dull and unfulfilling life as a shopgirl in a department store, baby sitting middle aged housewives. Disillusioned with her disappointing boyfriends, Yoon has entered a dark place where the thing she’s most sorry about in life is that she won’t be able to witness her own suicide. Accordingly she dresses up one of the department store mannequins in her clothes and pushes it off a roof, only it hits a car below and causes an accident.

Not exactly a traditional “meet-cute”, Youn and Kang first encounter each other surrounded by broken glass and are then handcuffed together by the investigating policeman (Choi Min-Yong) who was also just stabbed by one of Kang’s gang members after he spotted her pickpocketing on the metro. The policeman then randomly takes them to his friend’s Chinese restaurant which affords them an opportunity to escape even if they’re still chained at the wrists.

Though this very improbable situation points to a cute and quirky romance, Ashamed takes a non committal stance as regards to tone, throwing in odd details like strange priests living in the woods and Kang’s constantly unreliable self narratives but then retreating to something more straightforwardly melancholy. Love falls slowly as Youn recounts her lack of satisfaction with men only to find herself strangely attracted to her new handcuffs buddy while she, somewhat rudely, has sex with an ex-boyfriend she invited over for help with Youn lying mortified beside them. Suddenly realising why none of her boyfriends ever worked out, Youn feels, understandably, awkward alone with Kang and her ex and but is encouraged by Kang’s tentative but ultimately decisive grasping of her hand during the taxi journey onwards.

Kim’s attempt to avoid prurience whilst also pushing boundaries for sexual content unavoidably feels tame, hampered by the lack of chemistry between the leading actresses and lingering sense of embarrassment in his choice of camera angles. Though painted as a grand and heartbreaking love affair of a lifetime in the opening sequences, Youn and Kang’s romance never takes on the weight of tragedy or moves much beyond the very ordinary tale of two people who couldn’t make it work. This indeed may be the point, but given the melancholy atmosphere of the the three women discussing lost love on a lonely beach, Youn and Kang’s missed opportunity can’t help but feel slighting underwhelming.

Rather than the strongly negative “ashamed” the meaning of the original Korean might be more generously translated as “shy” or “embarrassed”, at any rate the film does not imply any of its characters have reason to feel shame. The title word surfaces a handful of times, most notably when the loosened up professor declares she has no need for it anymore, and in the final showdown with Kang as Youn attempts to challenge her on her problems with intimacy and commitment but fails to push her into a more honest space. Kang’s sense of “shame”, if that would be the right word, seems to be unconnected to sexuality but has deeper roots in the past which she remains unwilling to reveal. This sense of personal inadequacy fuels Kang’s drifting life as she feels the need to move on each time someone gets too close, afraid or perhaps on some level “ashamed” to commit herself fully.

Kim’s multi layered flashback structure mixed with imagined sequences and expressionist scenes inspired by Jung’s artwork proves an unwieldy concept which often detracts more than it gives. With a running time of over two hours and a romance which doesn’t start until many indie films have already ended, Ashamed bites off much more than it can chew but at the same time never fully engages with the most interesting elements of its subject matter. Flawed, if interesting, Ashamed is a bold and worthy effort yet one which falls far short of its target despite the committed performances of its central trio.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Love Story (연애담, Lee Hyun-ju, 2016)

cyaykwjucaav5frThe history of LGBT cinema in Korea is admittedly thin though recent years have seen an increase in big screen representation with an interest in exploring the reality rather than indulging in stereotypes. The debut feature from Lee Hyun-ju, Our Love Story (연애담, Yeonaedam), is among the first to chart the course of an ordinary romance between two women with all of the everyday drama that modern love entails. A beautiful, bittersweet tale of frustrated connection, Our Love Story is a realistic look at messy first love taking place under the snowy skies of Seoul.

Yoon-ju (Lee Sang-hee) is a busy fine arts graduate student working on her final project. Busy as she is, none of Yoon-ju’s friends can get their heads around her lack of interest in dating, but Yoon-ju is happy enough on her own and doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Whilst perusing a local junk yard looking for interesting things for her art project, something unexpected catches her eye in the form of a young woman delivering magazines but after the woman completes her business she leaves Yoon-ju’s slightly stunned field of vision, presumably forever.

Because these things happen in a city, Yoon-ju runs into the same woman again in a convenience store where she is having trouble buying cigarettes because she’s forgotten her ID and the cashier is being pedantic about the rules. Coming to the rescue, Yoon-ju buys the cigarettes for her with her ID, which leads to the opportunity of sharing one outside. The mysterious woman is named Ji-soo (Ryu Sun-young) and works part-time at a nearby bar to which she invites Yoon-ju if she happens to fancy a drink of an evening. Yoon-ju doesn’t drink, particularly, but convinces some friends to accompany her to to Ji-soo’s bar – a plan which backfires when they drink too much and argue with each other causing a scene. The two women don’t get much of an opportunity to chat and it all seems like it might end there with Yoon-ju heading home to bed only to receive an unexpected phone call from Ji-soo inviting her over for a late night drinking session.

So begins Yoon-ju’s first romance, and Ji-soo’s 78th as she later jokes. The first night slips into the first day and before long the pair have established a happy domesticity but their original euphoria is short lived as Ji-soo is due to be moving back to her hometown to live with her recently widowed father for a while. The relationship also has adverse effects on Yoon-ju’s life as she begins to neglect her art project and lets her colleagues down by forgetting important meetings, while other events leave her questioning if Ji-soo is really as committed to Yoon-ju as Yoon-ju is to her.

After Ji-soo moves back home, the pair make sure to meet up every so often either in Ji-soo’s hometown of Incheon or in Seoul but there’s an undeniable change in their relationship aside from the distance. In the city, Ji-soo had been outgoing and unafraid but in Incheon she’s a completely different person, closed off and permanently anxious. Ji-soo’s father is a more conservative and religious type who has no idea that his daughter is gay and still expecting her to get married, preferably as soon as possible. Worried that Ji-soo “does not date” he sets her up with a family friend and she has little choice but to play along even if she’s not intending to let it get anywhere. Yoon-ju’s first visit occurs while Ji-soo’s father is away, but even so Ji-soo is uncomfortable with having her in the house. When her father turns up unexpectedly one day while Yoon-ju is there, Ji-soo describes her as “a friend” and makes a point of answering all of Yoon-ju’s questions for her in case she lets something slip.

Hurt and confused, spending time in Incheon becomes a painful experience for Yoon-ju considering the permanently jumpy Ji-soo doesn’t even want her father to know she smokes, let alone anything else he might not approve of. Earlier on the relationship, Yoon-ju made the decision to confide in an old friend from her hometown and found him broadly supportive, once he got over the surprise. Ji-soo, more experienced, warns Yoon-ju that she’ll lose friends if she isn’t careful. This Yoon-ju finds out to her cost when she decides to try talking to her roommate about her troubles with Ji-soo as even someone she felt close to and had trusted suddenly rejects her. Realising you’ve placed your trust in someone who wasn’t worthy of it is a terrible feeling, but it isn’t just familial opposition the two women will be facing if they decide to make a go of things together, even in the big city.

Post Incheon, awkwardness grows and the distance deepens prompting one to fight back and the other to retreat but eventually Ji-soo appears to make her choice in way which seems cuttingly final in its coldness. Later trying to fix what she broke, Ji-soo again goes about things in an inadvisable way, still only superficially committed and unable to fully connect on a deeper level. Ending on an ambiguous, bittersweet note which seems to offer either hope or the despairing vision of an ever repeating cycle of pain, Our Love Story is a beautifully nuanced and interestingly composed addition to the Korean indie scene finally bringing a very ordinary romance to the cinema screen in all of its everyday melodrama.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Clip from halfway through the film (English subtitles)

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (リップヴァンウィンクルの花嫁, Shunji Iwai, 2016)

the_bride_of_rip_van_winkle“Being naked in front of people is embarrassing” says the drunken mother of a recently deceased major character in a bizarre yet pivotal scene towards the end of Shunji Iwai’s aptly titled A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (リップヴァンウィンクルの花嫁, Rip Van Winkle no Hanayome) in which the director himself wakes up from an extended cinematic slumber to discover that much is changed. This sequence, in a sense, makes plain one of the film’s essential themes – truth, and the appearance of truth, as mediated by human connection. The film’s timid heroine, Nanami (Haru Kuroki), bares all of herself online, recording each ugly thought and despairing notion before an audience of anonymous strangers, yet can barely look even those she knows well in the eye. Though Namami’s fear and insecurity are painfully obvious to all, not least to herself, she’s not alone in her fear of emotional nakedness as she discovers throughout her strange odyssey in which nothing is quite as it seems.

We first meet Nanami on an internet blind date with the man who will later become her husband. Looking lost and alone, she passively waits for her online suitor to find her in the busy city streets. Tetsuya (Go Jibiki) does indeed turn up and assume control of the situation, to which Nanami submits just as she has to everything else. Bonding over little more than their shared vocation of teaching the pair drift into a relationship and then later into a marriage, as is the natural order of things.

Though she seems happy enough, Nanami vents her frustrations in her caustic online blog. Isn’t this all just too easy? She asks herself. It’s almost like online shopping, she simply added a boyfriend to her basket and now she’s about to check out. A failure to win over Tetsuya’s mother adds to her sense of unease as does the fact she has no close friends or relatives (aside from her soon to be divorced parents) to invite to the wedding. Her decision to take the advice of an online friend and employ the shady fixer Amuro (Go Ayano) to hire a selection of professional party goers to bulk out her side of the hall will prove to be a disastrous one (though perhaps more in the short term), turning her entire life inside out.

Nanami’s essential personality trait is her passivity. Like Rip Van Winkle, she is largely asleep while things happen all around her. Though she dreamed of being a teacher, Nanami has only been able to find temporary supply roles with an agency but even this seems unlikely to last thanks to her softly spoken nature which makes classroom teaching a poor fit for her shy, attention avoidant personality. Discovered at her part time combini job by an old university friend, Nanami is embarrassed and has even been wearing a (useless but endearing) disguise in case any of her students come by despite the fact she chose a store far away from the school. Her friend now works at a hostess bar which Nanami finds a little bit shocking. That kind of unconventional way of living is not something she would contemplate, and so when offered the extremely dull but comfortable life alongside the dull but comforting Tetsuya, Nanami settles.

After Amuro spectacularly derails her non-happiness, Nanami is cast adrift which eventually leads her straight back into Amuro’s web of morally dubious activities. Taking a job as a maid at the cheap hotel she ends up in after leaving Tetsuya, Nanami also works part time as another of Amuro’s professional guests which is where she meets motivator no. 2 – Mashiro (Cocco), “actress” and all round live wire. Bonding over sad karaoke, Nanami and Mashiro later wind up working together as live in maids in a creepy, isolated mansion filled with poisonous animals. Enforced proximity leads to genuine friendship and then to more than that, but, ironically enough, Mashiro has not been entirely honest about her intentions and Nanami is soon adrift once again.

Undergoing a “fake” wedding that’s sort of real (in contrast with the “real” wedding which was sort of “fake”), at least in sentiment, Nanami looks much happier than in the extremely bizarre ceremony which bound her to Tetsuya. Nanami and Mashiro’s union was “engineered” yet mutually beneficial and ultimately genuine despite its artificial genesis. Making a last, heartbreaking speech, Mashiro attempts to explain herself and her life philosophy in a final act of nakedness. She prefers to pay for connection because, she says, the world is too full of kindness. There is so much happiness out there that it’s completely overwhelming. Sometimes there’s more truth in the lie than there is in the reality.

The resurfaced Iwai is both more cynical and more romantic than he has ever been before. He has serious things to say about constructed identities and disconnectedness, that the increasingly open nature of the anonymous online world only makes the real one seem less reliable and harder to navigate. We’ve all been wearing masks but we turned them round when we went online, and now perhaps we’re forgetting that we made them in the first place. Nanami may be adrift again at the film’s conclusion but she finds herself in a world of infinite possibilities. Emerging with more certainty and firmer sense of self, Nanami has retaken control and even if she doesn’t know where she’s going, the choice is entirely her own. Another beautifully nuanced, endlessly affecting character study from Iwai, A Bride for Rip van Winkle is a gloriously rich experience, filled with both hope and despair, but told with all the ethereal warmth and strangeness of the best of dreams.


This review refers to the 180 minute director’s cut, rather than the shorter international or four hour TV version.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Blue (ブルー, Hiroshi Ando, 2003)

blue03Growing up is hard to do. So it is for the teenage protagonists of Hiroshi Ando’s debut mainstream feature, Blue (ブルー), adapted from the manga by Kiriko Nananan. Like Nananan’s original comic, the cinematic adaptation of Blue is refreshingly angst free in its examination of first love and the burgeoning sexuality of two lonely high school girls. Shot with a chilly stillness which echoes the emptiness of this small town existence, Blue is no nostalgic retreat into cosy teenage dreams but a cold hard look at the messiness and pain of adolescent love.

Kayako’s (Mikako Ichikawa) life changes one day as she sees a fellow pupil at her all girls school being carried into an ambulance and spirited away. Curious yet unknowing, Kayako continues with her day to day existence until she happens to catch sight of another girl from her school, Masami (Manami Konishi), on the local bus. The two become friends after Masami expresses sympathy for Kayako when their teacher humiliates her in class. Masami is repeating the year after completing a long term suspension and has been ostracised by the other girls though no one quite seems to know exactly what happened. Before long Kayako’s feelings for her new acquaintance have transcended friendship but confused and jealous of Masami’s other friends, Kayako is at a loss. Eventually revealing her true feelings she discovers they aren’t unrequited after all, but Masami’s past contains its share of troubles which threaten to place a barrier between the two girls and destroy their growing romance.

Kayako is quiet and a bit of a dreamer. She eats lunch everyday with the same three girls on the rooftop but seems to feel isolated and listless in her small town existence. Masami, by contrast, is chattier and more outgoing but much of the persona she presents to the world is a way of coping with the circumstances which led to her leaving school. Kayako is drawn to Masami because of her outward sophistication – smoking, drinking, listening to foreign music, and reading books about impressionist artists. Later it transpires that at least some of these tastes were acquired from an older man with whom Masami had had an inappropriate relationship and are both a symptom of her desire to import personality traits from others because her own identity is so ill defined, and of wanting to seem much more mature than she really is.

Whilst Kayako is introverted yet solid and growing to be confident in who she really is, Masami, by contrast, appears only half formed but making up for her lack of self esteem with bravado and cheerfulness. It is this lack of certainty which eventually threatens to drive a wedge between the pair as Masami is unable to accept the kind of intimacy that Kayako wants to offer her. Repeating that she is “nothing”, has no future, and is an entirely passive presence simply floating along on the breeze, Masami is unable to make the kind of active choice which Kayako has already made, and may never be in a position to make it entirely of her own volition. Masami is always looking to run away, talking of moving to somewhere like Tokyo with a city’s anonymity, but when it comes down to it she lacks the courage to act.

Ando shoots at a stately pace mostly using static shots and distance takes though his slow pans across empty corridors help to bring out the utter loneliness and emptiness of the girls’ lives. Similarly a mild POV effect takes over panning around school windows as Masami looks for Kayako hoping to make a mends but finds her hurt, conflicted, and unwilling to engage. The two leads each give fantastically nuanced performances despite the plainness of the script and share an intense chemistry lending weight to the emotional resonance of the film. Ando creates a melancholy atmosphere of longing punctuated by fleeting glances and accidental touches, allowing the space and time for the physical performances to come to fruition. A subtly affecting tale of a difficult, yet mutually rewarding, teenage romance Blue has its share of early feature jitters, but makes up for them with an unusual dose of realism perfectly anchored by the strong performances of its leading ladies.


 

The Handmaiden (아가씨, Park Chan-wook, 2016)

handmaiden.jpgPark Chan-wook has something of a track record when it comes to bending literary sources in unexpected ways – who else would have thought of adding vampires to Thérèse Raquin and actually managed to make it work? In The Handmaiden (아가씨, Agasshi), his first return to Korean filmmaking after Stoker’s foray into American Gothic, Park adapts Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – a Dickensian tale of love and the multilayered con, and relocates it to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule.

Ambivalent attitudes to the Japanese is a key element exploited by a ruthless conman posing as “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo) in order to seduce a lonely heiress. To complete his elaborate plan, he needs the help of pickpocket extraordinaire, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-Ri), whom he will install as a maid in the household so she can subtly sell the virtues of the dashing nobleman to the innocent flower trapped in a well of opulence.

On arriving at the curiously constructed mansion which is an elegant architectural mix of Korean, Japanese, and English country estate, Sook-hee is quite literally out of place in the upperclass environment a world away from her home in a den of petty of thieves doubling as a baby farm. Another thing she had not quite banked on was that her new mistress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), would be quite so pretty. A serious spanner is thrown in the works as a mutual attraction builds up between the two women who, for reasons which become apparent, are being pulled in separate directions by other desires.

Park retains Waters’ tripartite structure even if he jettisons the final plot reveal for a less intricate tale of liberation and escape. Beginning with Sook-hee’s narrative he introduces us to the first layer of the con but also to Sook-hee and her down and dirty home in the criminal underworld. Chosen by the Count for her supposed lack of intellect and innocent naivety, Sook-hee is not quite at home among her family either. Both believing the promise that the babies they collect and sell in Japan will be going on to better lives and lamenting the cruelty of the whole business in wanting to mother the lot of them, Sook-hee is soft presence yet she also wants to prove herself as adept at criminality as her legendary, now deceased, mother.

It’s this essential warmth which eventually attracts Hideko’s attention. The much talked about tooth filing scene in which Sook-hee takes out a thimble to soften a lacerating sharpness in her mistress’ mouth is not just notable for the oddly erotic quality born of the obvious suggestive motion, unavoidable intimacy created by the closeness of bodies, and the growing desire of fleeting, furtive glances, but for its essential kindness. Moving into Hideko’s perspective for the second chapter, more is learned about her damaged past filled with cruelty and abuse. Orphaned and brought to Japan as a small child by her pornography obsessed uncle so that he might train her to entertain him with readings of erotic literature before he eventually marries her to inherit the family fortune, Hideko has never known anything as simple as unguarded goodness.

Caught up in a long con, the choice remains whether to blow cover and declare one’s hand or play the thing through to the end, however painful it may be. Park takes a different route than in the original novel which makes both of its heroines the victims of someone else’s avaricious plot of revenge against the cruelty of an unequal world, eventually reinforcing their bond by a shared rejection of their victimhood, but even when their passions eventually erupt the lovemaking begins as a another “con” where Sook-hee takes on the role of the Count, “educating” the assumedly “innocent” Hideko in the ways of desire.

Trapped within an oppressive gilded cage of a prison, Hideko has become the embodiment of desire for her cruel and eccentric uncle and the groups of men he invites to listen to her read erotic literature as if reciting a classical play. Complete with sideshows of sex dolls and theatrical scenery, Hideko is forced to act out the scenes from the books as an actress on the stage for an audience rapt in silence. Unable to escape alone, Hideko is offered new hope by Sook-hee’s straightforward outrage which allows the pair to destroy or repurpose the instruments of their oppression for their own pleasure. This is, in essence, their form of revenge in which they simply remove themselves from an abusive environment leaving the men behind to wonder at what’s gone wrong and later to destroy themselves without any additional help.

Filled with a gothic sense of impossible desires and uncertain judgements, The Handmaiden is unafraid of the genre’s melodramatic roots but is all the better for it. Beautifully photographed, this opulent world of swishing ball gowns and gloved hands is undercut by the ugliness of quisling collaborator Kouzuki and his basement of horrors. Erotically charged but ultimately driven by love, The Handmaiden is another unconventionally romantic effort from Park albeit one coloured by his characteristic sense of gothic darkness.


Reviewed at 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)