More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)
Note : Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) (2016) is significantly mentioned in this review (as David Lynch will be), not because both are Korean films, but because, in Missing (2016), Eon-hie Lee has something to say to him (judged, as yet, by not having seen the director’s cut) : just as Prevenge (2016) and Free Fire (2016) were actually reviewed together, not just as having been seen within days of each other, but because their writer / directors Alice Lowe and Ben Wheatley, respectively, had made Sightseers (2012) together.
The distinct impression gained, when watching The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) (2016) during Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (@camfilmfest), was that more than an influence of Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White could be detected – not unreasonably, as it turns out, since director Chan-wook Park is credited, in having co-written the film with Seo-kyeong Jeong, to have been ‘inspired by’ Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, which is set in the latter half of the nineteenth century. (Collins published his novel in 1959, and The Moonstone in 1868.)
If we know nothing from The Moonstone itself, we will be aware that Collins is considered the father of detective fiction in the English language*. However, whereas Missing knows that a crime-writer who challenges his or her reader, by saying Look, I led you up the garden path, and this is not the story that you thought, can only do so once, The Handmaiden fails to realize this fact – as if unaware that the reader is on notice not to be trusting of the writer again – and so reveals flaws in the plotting**, or makes evident what is meant to be a further surprise to us**.
That said, when a film is called Missing*** (2016), one can hardly be creating a spoiler to say that it features a disappearance : whether a film is The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), or The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), its essence is that, with the passing of time, it concerns what is [believed to be] known, and to whom, about the disappearance – it proceeds by (some of) its characters considering what may have been concealed, and if so, why, and what that then also suggests has been done and / or concealed.
Of course, in those films, the nature of the disappearance does not actually relate, per se, to someone's safety. With Blue Velvet (1986), when such concerns come to be an issue, Lynch has it played so matter-of-factly that, although Jeffrey's father is seriously unwell, he naturally loses any sight, when he finds the severed ear, of his purpose for being back home (and we barely see him visit the hospital again). Instead, he does all that we see unfold – ruses, suspicions, and downright hunches – because he wants to know more (and not be put off by Sandy's policeman father) : in this respect, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) somewhat resembles the Pevensie children, needing adventure when evacuated from The Blitz to stay in their uncle’s forbidding house. However, those hunches, and Jeffrey's resourcefulness, are also there - and with more reason - in Ji-sun (Ji-won Uhm) in Missing...
We see, from the start, the familial and professional pressure that Ji-sun receives, but we likewise gather much about how the boss and her in-laws disparage / discredit her and her abilities (irrespective of its likelihood to impact even more negatively on them – no doubt, she is considered dispensable) : maybe we even believe (and so she surprises us the more) that they are not wholly wrong, when we hear her grovel (having - in the circumstances - to grovel), and execute formal bows to show her humility and contrition (a societal motif played with in A Quiet Dream (2016), the previous London Korean Film Festival ‘teaser’) ?
Those elements in the initial presentation of Ji-sun’s character may make her feel stylized, and even a little too much to the fore, but she starts to show that she is a true force of nature – with her sixth sense and intuition, she becomes not some superhero figure, but a human tour de force (and one did wonder whether even Doona Bae could have risen to this challenge). The pace and frenetic extent of twenty-first century existence is located in often incessant calls to her mobile phone, and we sometimes almost want her to have respite from them so that we can have peace. Yet, tool or nuisance, the phone is what informs and assists her quest, whether in the dubious recesses of an establishment called Heavenly Woman, or navigating her way out of town to where someone had been - ignoring all good feeling - cruelly treated (please see below).
Her hidden energy and intellect, her investigative ability to see back in time and to understand what must have happened (shown to us either as flashbacks, or as pure flashes of insight – as against the relatively flat-footed enquiries that, in The Moonstone’s Sergeant Cuff, too, Wilkie Collins shows us) make Ji-sun one sort of embodiment of female emotion. She is not always rational, because of the vicious spiral of divorce / custody proceedings having sought to portray her as unstable (and such attack can get to anyone, probably not least in her country’s culture), but we sense her courage, and we feel for her at moments of anxiety, tension, or sheer fear in and through Ja wan Koo’s excellent score, which, for the other female lead**** and her trauma, makes prominent use of the cello..
Hyo-jin Kong and Ji-won Uhm [Missing (2016)] do much more than give Tae-ri Kim and Min-hee Kim a run for their money [The Handmaiden (2016)] pic.twitter.com/xT3ge6KCVr— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) April 25, 2017
Shown yesterday by @koreanfilmfest working with @camfilmfest / @CamPicturehouse, Missing (Sarajin Yeoja) (2016) better evokes Wilkie Collins pic.twitter.com/hlAEXmoCFo— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) April 25, 2017
* South of the border with Scotland, at least, whereas they claim a different tradition, north of it, via Robert Louis Stevenson : at least, Val McDiarmid did (when asked by #UCFF whether she considered herself primarily a writer, or a Scottish writer).
** For those who have not seen the film, the clues to what is adrift are, respectively, trees and opiates, and smoking. (And, as both Jin-woong Jo and Jung-woo Ha are not averse to causing others harm, why might they not have poisoned the closing moments... ?)
*** Whereas, on IMDb (@IMDb), perhaps the web-page for the film more accurately reflects the film’s title in Korean (but it causes difficulty in finding the film at all) ?
**** Another point of contact with The Handmaiden, as well as that there are again two female leads, is that one woman is an emigrée (and so under economic constraints).
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)