The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, 2017)

What's it about? A con-man (Ha Jung-woo) gets a young thief Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) to masquerade as a handmaiden to a sheltered, wealthy heiress (Kim Min-hee) as part of a plot to cheat her of her inheritance. Things get complicated when Sookee starts to have feelings for her mistress. And that's just the first half-hour.

Is it any good? I suppose this should be described as an erotic thriller, given the sexual content and twisty nature of the plot. But that does it a disservice because in the hands of Park, this is a much more sensual, artistic take on some standard potboiler elements. Yes, there are shock revelations, steamy sex scenes and octopus porn, but it's also a gorgeous, intricately assembled piece of arthouse theatre. It's a film that requires a bit of attention to keep abreast (snigger) of events, shifting perspectives to revisit key scenes and explain some odd moments,forcing us to re-evaluate what we have already seen in light of new information. Throughout, the Hitchcockian vibes Park brought to his last film Stoker are also in play here, with voyeurism, emotional manipulation, sexual obsession and deep secrets all playing integral parts in the story. These elements are further emphasised by the fetishisation of costumes/props, as well as the rich set design, the architecture of which gives natural framing to the immaculate shot compositions. It all adds up to a heady, sexy cocktail, helped along by excellent, brave (ie often buck-naked) performances from the two lead actresses as the central relationship deepens. It's an impressive, lurid melodrama that probably will require a second viewing. In its entirety, not just the lady-love bits, you filthy beggar.

Anything else I should know? Based on the acclaimed book Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, which is set in Victorian England, so the transition to a film set in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s might not be immediately apparent. However, articles here and here give interesting insights from both Park and Waters about the adaptation process. Elsewhere the debate about whether the sex scenes are gratuitous or not and whether a male director can ever do justice to lesbian lovemaking has inevitably led to much (hairy)hand-wringing.

What does the Fonz think? Exotica Erotica.

Irish Double Bill

The Irish Film and TV Awards took place last night, so it seems fitting to review a couple of the winners from the big night. To help me, I invited special guest reviewer and honorary Irishman Michael Flatley around for his input and after some pleasantries about the soft rain and a little dancing, we settled down to watch the following double bill.

A Date for Mad Mary (Darren Thornton, 2016) was awarded Best Film on the night, a popular decision all round for the well-received film. It's a nicely judged comedy-drama about the attempts of Mary (Seána Kerslake) to obtain a date for her best friend Charlene's wedding. Trouble is, Mary has just been released after a short spell in prison and everyone, including Charlene, seems to have moved on without her. Kerslake is the stand-out here with an excellent performance as Mary, whose likeable persona belies some darker, 'mad' personality traits which invariably scupper her attempts to fit in with 'normal' folk. But she gets good support because the film gratifyingly fleshes out the other female characters into three-dimensional figures; Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) develops into much more than the bridezilla we are initially presented with, whilst Jess (Tara Lee) becomes increasingly important to Mary as the film develops. Structurally, it doesn't really avoid the conventional plot developments that one normally finds in this type of film (yes, there is a comic montage of failed dates), but it puts enough spin on proceedings to be comfortable with its own identity by the end. Make a date with it.
What did Micheal Flatley think? Bleedin' rapid fidlim.

The Young Offenders (Peter Foott, 2016) won Best Screenplay at the IFTAs and is a broader comedy-drama about two feckless Cork teenagers who decide to make their fortune by cycling to the coast to try and retrieve one of the bales of cocaine that washed ashore after a drugs heist at sea. Naturally, things don't quite go to plan, not least because of the hapless antics of the central duo (charming performances from Alex Murphy and Chris Walley), who aren't quite as smart or tough as they would like to be. It's really good fun, with an energetic pace and increasingly farcical plot, although it still allows for some quieter moments of drama and introspection which help give it some warmth and depth. It's currently available on Netflix so if you're after an easy watch with a few belly-laughs, this'll do the job rightly.
What did Micheal Flatley think? Them langers are a couple of right gowls, d'ya know like?!

SK Horror Double Bill

Been a slack couple of weeks on The Fast Picture Show because real work reared its ugly head. But what better way to ease myself back into things than with a South Korean Horror double bill. Starting with ....

The Wailing (Na Hong-Jin, 2016) sees a slightly buffoonish cop (Kwak Do-won) investigating a series of vicious killings in a quiet mountain village, which he thinks might be linked to a mysterious Japanese recluse who has recently arrived in the area. Things take a distinct turn for the worse when his young daughter becomes apparently possessed by an evil spirit, leading to him to reluctantly engage the services of a shaman to get to the bottom of things. Thus it's a mash-up of police procedural and supernatural thriller; Memories of Murder meets The Exorcist. It's a mix that results in a slightly uneven film which gets a little confusing as the events unfurl, although perhaps a full understanding of the movie requires a bit more knowledge of the ancient shamanistic traditions and folklore that Na draws inspiration from. Nevertheless, even though it all goes a bit WTF? on its way to a downbeat ending, Na, who also directed the similarly dense and unsettling The Yellow Sea, certainly fashions some creepy moments and a number of blackly comic moments. If you've ever wanted to see a dead man pull a rake out of his own head, this is the film for you.

However, you'd be better off checking your timetable for a time to catch Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016), an immensely enjoyable ride which turns out to deliver much more than its 'zombies on a train' premise would suggest. A self-centred investment banker is escorting his daughter by train to meet his ex-wife, but things get quickly derailed when a mysterious infection turns most of the other passengers into blood-thirsty zombies. In the best disaster movie tradition, a small group of survivors team up in an attempt to reach safety, including a tough guy and his pregnant wife, a group of teenagers, a couple of old sisters and a splendidly hissable save-his-own-skin executive. Thus the scene is set for some exciting action and tense set-pieces, which work even better because nice performances and efficient characterisation means we become fully invested in the collective and individual fates of the group. Clearly not everyone is going to make it to the end credits, but who dies - and how - is all part of the fun and perhaps not as guessable as one might first think.  But it's not just about thrills. As with Romero's classic zombie movies, there's a slyly satirical edge here too as the cause and effect of the outbreak is used to make some pointed commentary about the global recession, class differences and anti-immigrant sentiment. And best of all, the whole thing becomes unexpectedly affecting (infecting?) by the end as some well-handled developments left me surprisingly moved by the whole thing. All in all, it's the best zombie movie in years - think of it as RailWay of the Dead.

Strange, Peculiar, Fantastic Triple Bill

A trio of 2016 films, recently released to rent. Did they live up to their names?

Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson, 2016) is the latest new addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it's a solid rather than brilliant entry to the series. Here we get his origin story as we see arrogant neuro-surgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) forced to search out more spiritual elements in the world when a car crash ruins his career. The result is heavy on the special-effects (winning a visual effects Oscar in the process), but somewhat light on charm as our hero takes on various bad guys in a battle for control of something-something in the astral something. Perfectly watchable guff, but not likely to challenge the big boys in the MCU. If it were a doctor, it would be a small-town GP, rather than any sort of high-flying consultant.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton, 2016) is a so-so adaptation of Ransom Rigg's best-selling novel, which based it's fantasy story around some odd real-life photographs Riggs had collected over the years. It was a diverting enough premise, but the film struggles to make it work on screen, resulting in a mutant X-Child time-travel story which limps along sporadically to lacklustre effect. None of the peculiar children are particularly memorable, the plot is muddled and Samuel L. Jackson on villain duties can't decide whether he's supposed to be scary or funny, ending up being neither. It's a disappointing effort from Burton, who would have seemed tailor-made for tackling such an 'outsider' film, base don his previous work.

Having finally run out of milk, the Harry Potter cash cow has now been forced to calve, resulting in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates, 2016). And much like a new calf, this new franchise bounds about enthusiastically and aimlessly, but tries not to stray too far from its mother. Eddie Redmayne is the (super)naturalist magician Newt Scamander, whose hunt for strange creatures leads him to New York in 1926. There he stumbles upon some secret wizardy goings-on involving various dangerous things which could mean the end for the no-Maj world as we know it. Or something. A bit overlong and muddled, but maybe I'm just not enough of a Potter-head to get it. Perhaps like its mother franchise before it, it will be less wobbly on its feet as it grows and will produce better quality milk.


Fences (Denzel Washington, 2017)

What's it about? Adaptation of the Pulitzer-prize winning play by August Wilson about Troy Maxton (Denzel Washington), a Pittsburgh binman whose lost dreams of glory impact upon his relationships with his wife (Viola Davis) and children.

Is it any good? By all accounts Fences is a brilliant stage production, but I'm afraid it hasn't translated as well to the screen. It's perfectly watchable, thanks mostly to two excellent performances from Washington and Davis (who won Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her pains) as they negotiate their way through a marriage. Having both performed in the 2010 revival of the stage play, they know these characters intimately and the strongest scenes revolve around their clashes. But Washington the director is perhaps a bit too faithful to Wilson's story and words, meaning some of the more theatrical elements jar somewhat on film. Thus, cliched as it may be, it's hard to avoid the word 'stagy' in describing it. Worth seeing for those central turns, but if it was a fence, it would be a long, uneven one with some clumsily assembled sections.

I don't trust you. What do others think? August Wilson would presumably have approved, as his screenplay remains intact and he always insisted this needed to be directed by a black director. But we'll never know because he died in 2005, meaning he joins a small list of writers who were posthumously nominated for a screenplay Oscar (he didn't win). General consensus is that it's solid rather than spectacular and you'd be better off with the play, all things considered. There's a good article here by Richard Brody who articulates why Fences didn't translate well to the screen.

What does the Fonz think? I'm sitting on the fence.