The Handmaiden


Viewed – 06 August 2017  Blu-ray

Let me say straight away that I regard Korean director Park Chan-wook as one of the best around and his much acclaimed vengeance trilogy (which includes the famed ‘Oldboy’) speaks for itself.  Add to this his previous American debut ‘Stoker’ being an underrated gem and well to say I was looking forward to what came next, was an understatement.  Once I discovered it would be a period piece though, for a director more known for contemporary (and bloody) revenge thrillers … I did feel a little trepidation.

The Handmaiden

A seasoned crook (Ha Jung-woo) with his eye on a wealthy heiress (Kim Min-hee), sends a trusted young pick pocket (Kim Tae-ri) to pose as her handmaiden.  Once gaining the Heiress’s trust the crook himself poses as an eligible count in hope of marrying the heiress and gaining access to her fortune.  Once plan is set in motion however the pick-pocket/handmaiden finds herself drawn to the lonely heiress who has lived all her life in a secluded mansion, overseen by a controlling and perverted uncle.

This beautifully shot film is full of character and period atmosphere, complete with stunning costumes and spot-on performances.  It’s an intriguing premise that twists and turns, spread over three distinct parts, where we get to see the differing points of view of the various characters and gradually learn about each of their underlying plans and cunning manipulations.  Who will come out on top?  Think to some extent Dangerous Liaisons and you’ll have a good idea what this about.  It’s got a quirky sense of humour (especially during some explicit but not particularly erotic sex-scenes) and some of the Korean / Japanese traditions are fascinating.  For a film by Park Chan-wook however it lacks the showmanship he’s displayed in the past, going for a more sedate, realistic vibe that’s still eye-catching thanks to gorgeous cinematography and lavish locations / set design.  At over 2 and half hours, it’s a bit drawn out, but packs in a lot of personality.  Not as immediately essential as his best work … but still one to check out if your a fan or enjoy quality Korean cinema.

Verdict:  3.5 /5

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10 directors who have shaped my movie viewing tastes


Inspired by a recent post over at abbiobiston.com, I thought I’d sit down and list ten movie directors I either seek out without hesitation, or have made some of the most affecting and inspiring movies I’ve ever seen, shaping what kind of movie viewer I am today and creating experiences that have transcended basic entertainment to actually mean something to me as a person.

Quentin Tarantino

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As a reviewer, occasional-writer and movie fan, Quentin Tarantino ignited a spark inside me that has yet to go out.  When first seeing Pulp Fiction, I knew this was the sort of material I wanted to write about, and this continued with his script for Natural Born Killers and also his debut, Reservoir Dogs.  He was a rebel, he challenged people’s ideas of what violence was all about on screen, not there for just shock value but to make you feel something.  He managed to back this up with amazing dialogue writing skills and a keen eye for pop-culture and cinema history that has continued to this day.

David Cronenberg

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Horror for me was never just about hiding behind my cushion and trembling – horror for me was about the strange and surreal, the gruesome but in a way that made you ponder what it meant.  Croneberg has always been a master of this, of using body-horror to make you feel something you’ve never felt before, backed up by intelligent direction that more often than not has a lot of social commentary of the times we live in i.e. sexually transmitted infections with Shivers.  He has continued to shape his often controversial style into the modem gangster and crime genres to brilliant effect in movies like Eastern Promises.

Stephen Spielberg

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Probably the most famous director of all time who seems to barely put a foot wrong and can turn his hand to a wealth of different genres and subjects, from the industry defining Jaws and Jurassic Park to powerful masterpieces like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.  Assured, confident and always entertaining and thought-provoking, this maverick director continues to be a name to bet on even after almost 40 years in the business.  As long as we don’t mention the most recent Indiana Jones movie, Spielberg remains one of those names every movie fan will know and surely appreciate to some degree.

John Carpenter

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Fallen from grace he may be, but during the seventies and eighties, this guy made some of the coolest and most sort after movies I’d ever seen.  Who can argue the merits of Halloween, The Thing and Big Trouble In Little China?  Although I can’t say I totally appreciate Escape From New York as much as others, I have a soft spot for lesser known efforts like Prince Of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness.  This guy knew how to create perfectly entertaining genre movies and although he hasn’t made much of note for years, that’s a hell of a back catalogue of classics.

David Fincher

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Although I think he’s become a bit relaxed in recent years, churning out fairly ‘safe’ movies, for the most part Fincher has still created some of the most stylish and intricately directed movies I’ve seen, namely the multi layered classics Fight Club, Seven and even Zodiac.  His directing style is crisp and beautiful even when it’s dealing with very dark subject matter, and his camera work and imagery have stayed with me long after the credits have rolled.  He’s a technical directing fan’s dream director, as for me I can appreciate every aspect of the setting, the camera work to the music and lighting.  Helps he can also pull out great performances from the likes of Brad Pitt and Jake Gyllenhaal to name but a few.

Stanley Kubrick

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With a fairly small catalogue of movies, this director like no other has made some of the masterpieces of my lifetime.  The Shining is still the best horror movie I’ve ever seen and probably the most perfectly directed, on a technical level movie I’ve seen also.  His strong visual skill at making every shot and every camera movement look so well executed has made movies even of lesser impact like Eyes Wide Shut a work of art.  He proved again and again that careful eye for detail, iconic performances can turn even a well worn subject like the Vietnam war into amazing cinema.  I haven’t seen everything he’s done, but of the movies I have, he keeps on amazing me, and is possibly the best director on this list.

Dario Argento

67^ MOSTRA INTERNAZIONALE D'ARTE CINEMATOGRAFICA

Perhaps at his best during the seventies and eighties, but this often controversial director has gained a strong cult following over the years and remains one of the most stylish and genre-defining film-makers around.  At his best he can make gruesome murder look beautiful, and his frequent collaborations with the band Goblin and musician Claudio Simonetti has helped create a brand of effective Italian cinema that still stands the test of time.  Try watching Suspiria or Tenebrae without marvelling at the camera work, atmosphere or use of lighting and music.  Argento will always be the maestro when it comes to horror, even if his light has considerably faded over the years.

Martin Scorsese

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The Don.  How does this guy keep doing it?  To this day Scorsese still manages to amaze and impress.  He has crafted true classics such as Taxi Driver and Goodfellas and still manages to churn out quality movies like Shutter Island and The Wolf Of Wall Street.  It’s always exciting when I hear he’s making another movie and even diversions like Hugo retain that Scorsese eye for style and cinematic creativity I’ve grown to love about him.  He has a tendency to work with the same actors but also manages to bring out wildly different performances from them, that give each movie their own voice.  One of the best film makers of all time in my opinion.

Joel & Ethan Coen

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In recent years their brand of southern comedy and thrillers has felt a tad hit and miss, but when these sibling directors are on form, they can make some of the best movies you’ll ever see.  Comedies like The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona offer up laughs as well as style and assured direction along with iconic performances, and thrillers like Fargo and No Country For Old Men prove they can deliver tight, well executed stories that pack a punch.  They continue to be favourites at Oscar season and amongst a huge cult audience, and with a strong visual style and often award winning performances, their movies are hard to dismiss.

Park chan-Wook

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Another director who can explore very dark themes but make them beautiful with imaginative camera work, scene setting and particularly artistic shots.  His American debut Stoker is a perfect example of strong story, strong performances and beautiful, almost poetic direction.  His vengeance trilogy that incudes the cult classic Old Boy is powerful, gut-wrenching but extremely moving and artistic, blending classical music with striking story-telling and stunning cinematography.  Park chan-Wook’s the real deal if you can appreciate quality direction with a signature touch.

To disturb or intrigue?


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Over the years, running this blog and beforehand, I have stumbled across, sometimes sort out and watched some pretty messed up examples of modern cinema.  The world as we know it can be pretty freaky and strange, and the movie industry is a place where some directors like to explore the darker realms of story-telling.  Below are just a few of the most powerfully disturbing movies I have seen, some of which have had a lingering affect on me as a movie fan.  So take a trip with me into the heart of darkness and into some movies that are certainly not for everyone … simply put, approach these with a great amount of caution.

Audition

Takeshi Miik’s simple story (on the surface) of a world weary film maker in search of his ideal bride; jaded from the usual dating scene he chooses to hold a series of auditions for a role that does not exist.  Suffice to say the seemingly gentile woman he finds hides a much more sadistic side to her personality.

Most disturbing moment:  the man in the cloth sack.

The Untold Story

Based apparently on a true story of a restaurant owner who murders his family then serves them up as ingredients in his pork buns – is one of the most notorious Category III movies in Hong Kong.  Anthony Wong, no stranger to powerful roles plays the main character and is in some of the most graphically violent scenes I’ve ever seen.  Most shocking is the slightly comical tone, which makes events all the more difficult to tolerate.

Most disturbing moment:  a family gets massacred.

Irreversible

Clever in structure it may be, as it is told in reverse, starting with the end credits before proceeding to a nightclub murder and leading up to (or flashing back to…) a brutally drawn out rape scene.  Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci headline the cast in this stylish but utterly harrowing story of revenge.

Most disturbing moment:  death by fire extinguisher.

Scum

Alan Clark’s unflinching take on British boys borstal life made a name out of a teenage Ray Winston, but it’s no holds barred tone and graphic violence makes it notorious.  In some ways it can be seen as a cool hard-core brit flick, but has a horrible warning message for young offenders everywhere.

Most disturbing moment:  rape in a greenhouse.

Eden Lake

A British horror in an unconventional sense has a young couple visiting their favourite secret getaway by a secluded lake – until a group of delinquent youths choose to crash the party.  Harrowing because from a British point of view, these type of youths exist on housing estates, in run down districts etc … and it’s a scary thought that if coming into their territory you may just be fighting for survival.  Violent and shockingly believable.

Most disturbing moment:  setting the boy on fire.

Martyrs

I have spoken about this notorious French horror before, but it remains one of the most difficult to sit through movies of all time.  Two girls seeking revenge stumble upon a cult hell bent on discovering evidence of the after life, by pushing their victims to near death through prolonged torture and martyrdom.

Most disturbing moment:  discovering the tortured woman.

Sleeping Beauty

A woman (Emily Browning) struggling to pay her way through college takes a job as a hostess at an exclusive gentleman’s club.  However when she is there she is told she will be drugged and go to sleep in a bed, and when she wakes the morning after, she will be paid … but isn’t aloud to ask what happens in between.  Weird, freaky and utterly unpleasant.

Most disturbing moment:  the old man shouting obscenities to an unconscious, naked girl.

Sympathy for Mr Vengeance

The first part of Park Chan-wook’s acclaimed vengeance trilogy, this tells the story of a deaf and dumb guy trying to raise money for his sister’s kidney operation.  However his terrorist girlfriend talks him into kidnapping a wealthy business man’s daughter in order to get a ransom.  Things go from bad to worse and well, vengeance is seeked not just from the business man but also the deaf guy in a movie of powerful acting and even more powerful violence.

Most disturbing moment:  torture by electricity.

Funny Games

A family’s idyllic holiday is interrupted by two seemingly nice guys who stop by to borrow a cup of sugar – then  subject the family to a series of humiliating and cruel ‘games’ at gunpoint.  Director Michael Haneke’s powerful movie was remade under the same name in America and starred Naomi Watts.

Most disturbing moment:  breaking the fourth wall.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Made a name for it’s star Michael Rooker and is a powerful interpretation of the real life crimes of killer Henry Lee Lucas.  Along with his friend Otis, Henry goes on a series of murders, until after a while their fun is interrupted by the arrival of Otis’ trailer-trash sister.  Suffice to say this serial killing duo don’t take too kind to company.  Brutal, very realistic and all the more disturbing for it.

Most disturbing moment:  home invasion on VHS.

So there you have it.  Movies that span the gamut of shocking, violent and powerful.  Some are classic examples of extreme cinema at it’s best (Martyrs, Sympathy…) and some are just plain horrible (Sleeping Beauty).  I would say if you are at all squeamish or some movies can play on your mind, then avoid the list above … but if like me you like to test yourself, see what is out there, then, still with a degree of caution … the movies above leave their mark regardless of your bravery.  You have been warned.

AUDITION FOR THE TICKET 24 JULY 2009 TOP FIVE HORROR FILMS

Ten from another place


Thought I would express on here my love of foreign cinema, and although I don’t get to watch as much as I would like, there have been some real gems over the years.  It is sad whenever I mention foreign (or world) cinema to anyone who isn’t exactly a cinefile, they immediately say ‘Is it subtitled?’ to which my answer is normally ‘yes’ and their reaction is to be instantly put off.  It makes me sad.  However if such things don’t bother you all that much, then the list below has some good titles to check out…

Tell No One

tell no one

Based on the novel by Harlan Coben this mystery thriller follows the story of a Doctor mourning the death of his wife, who one day contacts him via email.  A great cat and mouse whodunit with ruthless villains and a storyline that keeps you guessing to the end.  A great on foot chase and superb use of U2’s ‘With Or Without You’.

Chung-king Express

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Discovered this during my ‘have to watch everything Hong Kong related’ phase back in the 90’s.  Yet in complete contrast to the John Woo action movies I had become addicted to, this was a sweet love story about different people and how their lives have an effect on one another.  Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Christopher Doyle to clever, multi-layered direction by Wong Kar Wai.

Howl’s Moving Castle

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Hayao Miyazaki … surely no need for explanation here.  I think this magical, highly imaginative fantasy based on the children’s book by Diana Wynne Jones and with glorious hand-drawn animation … is a joy.  I may even go as far as saying it’s my favourite Studio Ghibli movie, with a little less Japanese oddness compared to the more famed Spirited Away.

[REC]

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Stop reading this if you have seen the lacklustre remake ‘Quarantine’ starring that woman out of Dexter … this is a majorly scary, hand-held camera / found footage horror in the style of The Blair Witch Project but so much better.  Superb, fast-paced direction from Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza – the sequel is pretty awesome too.

Sympathy For Mr Vengeance

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The second movie I had seen by acclaimed director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker), and making up the first part of his famed ‘vengeance trilogy’.  This harrowing tale of human organ trafficking, revenge and a deaf & dumb protagonist trying to save the life of his ill sister, is raw, very violent and powerful.  Made me think a lot afterwards about right and wrong etc.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

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Kind of an obvious one and in my opinion superior to the recent remake and also its two sequels.  A mystery involving a missing woman, a cool computer hacker with a troubled past and a disgraced journalist.  Excellent, career making turn from the wonderful Noomi Rapace.

Let The Right One In

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Based on the controversial novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist and with superb, understated direction from Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), another that is superior to the remake and with a touching love story at it’s heart between two lost souls.  One of the finest horror movies of the last decade.

The Killer

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The movie that put famed action director John Woo on the map.  Chow Yun Fat as a charming hitman who accidentally blinds a singer in a club during a hit.  Danny Lee is the tough cop out to catch him but discovers more than he expected.  Superb action sequences with Woo’s trademark slow-motion gunplay, and a touching story of guilt and redemption that went on to shape much of Woo’s career.

Betty Blue

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One of my all time favourite foreign movies.  A tale of free-spirited Betty and her struggling-writer boyfriend during a wild road trip.  It’s French, its full of sex and nudity and became a cult favourite during the late eighties.  Béatrice Dalle is magnificent and extremely sexy in the lead role.

Pan’s Labyrinth

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Guilermo Del Toro may be more known overseas as the man behind the Hellboy movies, but on his own turf he makes intelligent, often hauntingly beautiful movies most notably this acclaimed fantasy that crosses real world horrors of civil war with the imaginary world of a girl’s imagination.  Beautiful imagery, great special effects and strong performances makes this a true classic.

If you’re one of the crowd that just don’t do movies in a foreign language, can’t abide subtitles etc … I really urge you to give at least one of the titles above a day in court.  World Cinema can be braver, more daring and just as well made as anything from the states.

Those more than familiar with these types of movies … what are some of your favourites?  Any recommendations?  Leave your comments below…

Stoker


Viewed – 08 July 2013  Blu-ray

I was in two minds when sitting down to watch this.  Firstly feverishly excited as it marks the American / English-language debut of one of my favorite directors, namely Korean auteur Park Chan-wook.  He made for me one of the finest trilogy of movies I have experienced, the critically acclaimed cult thrillers known as The Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) and along with the unique vampire love story Thirst – he has impressed me time and again.  Now coming to that second thing, trepidation – I was nervous that something would be lost in translation in his swap to American mainstream cinema … would all the reasons I admire his talent, be cast aside in favor of the usual studio interference, with pretty much the only thing saying it was the same director, being his name on the credits?

stoker pic

Well rest assured, this is every bit as imaginative, eye-meltingly beautiful and intelligent as I could have hoped – if not more so.  Alice In Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a loner school kid mourning the recent death of her father when her uncle, who the family have had nothing to do with for years, makes an appearance and moves into the family home.  Soon he’s warming up to India’s mother (a stepford wife like Nicole Kidman) and trying to befriend India – who has her own suspicions on this new found uncle’s agenda.

From the off the photography and just sheer imagination with camera work, editing and scenery are eye catching and clever as hell.  Think perhaps Tim Burton meets Roman Polanski via David Lynch, and you may get an idea.  The movie is moody but has a cheeky personality, aware of its own style without overwhelming, and delivering three very different, very memorable performances.  Matthew Goode (Watchmen) is eerily charming as India’s uncle, and Kidman retains her usual sexiness whilst also exposing a wicked step mother alter-ego, meaning she really should play more villainous roles.  The star here though remains Wasikowska, who was perfect as Alice but seems ideally cast here as the darkly disturbed India … a performance that echoed early Winona Ryder for me.

But I wasn’t here for the cast … I was here for Park Chan-wook and along with frequent collaborator, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, he’s created a work of art … the look is both creepy and beautiful at the same time, and even on the backbone of a typical psychological thriller plot (from Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller) this is much more than the some of its parts.

The kind of movie you really need to sit down and wallow in, and above all else … enjoy.

Verdict  5 /5