its a remake for one of my old sets gods know where it is

The Handmaiden - A Review and Airing of Grievances

Ah-ga-ssi (original title)

Dir. Park Chan-wook.

Starring Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo.

I don’t watch nearly enough Korean cinema. Frankly, I don’t watch enough movies from anywhere outside the US.

But this is only partially my fault. The Handmaiden received a tiny US release of 140 theaters (for comparison, there are nearly 140 theaters in New York City alone). It wasn’t released here for public consumption until January 2017, almost a year after its debut at Cannes, and not on Blu-ray until March. I couldn’t even find the film through piracy.

And that’s not surprising. Korean cinema does not do well here. Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake made about $5 million on a $30 million budget. One of the highest-grossing films in Korean history, Ryoo Seung-wan’s terrific Veteran, played in only a few US theaters and didn’t make waves. I saw it while living in Ann Arbor, and the theater was almost entirely east-Asian students. I only saw it because my Korean then-girlfriend took me, and I like foreign films.

Here’s why I bring all that up: Handmaiden should be a hit. It’s got a con-artist plot every bit as good as Ocean’s 11, a gorgeous period style every bit as good as Anna Karenina, an erotic bent infinitely better than 50 Shades of Grey. Truly there is something in Handmaiden for everybody.

And yet, no American success. Why not?

One cynical explanation might be that we don’t like subtitles. “I’m not going to read a movie,” I’ve heard viewers proudly declare. And The Handmaiden could not exist without subtitles. It slips between Korean and Japanese; to keep them straight, Korean lines were subtitled in white, and Japanese in yellow. The relationships between the characters and their languages are critical to understanding the film, but maybe we don’t have the patience for it.

Another possible cynical explanation: we’re not interested in period pieces set in non-white countries. Whether this is true or not, Hollywood seems to believe it—recall the insultingly Caucasian Exodus: Gods and Kings, or even this year’s Ghost in the Shell (the future counts as a period).

Part of the problem here is just that we don’t have a good understanding of East Asian history. The Handmaiden is set during the 1930’s, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Its attention to period detail is enrapturing, but we Westerners have no context for it. Is that an impediment to our understanding? I don’t think so. I’m certainly no historian, and my enjoyment of the film was undiminished. But it might be a barrier to entry, its Korean-ness dissuading us from even trying to understand.

I’d say this is symptomatic of America’s cultural pathology: films made in Korea are Korean Movies, films starring black people are Black People Movies, films with same-sex couples are LGBT Movies. But movies with white, straight, cis Americans are just…movies. The Avengers is fit for everyone’s consumption, but I dunno, sighs the suburbanite, I just don’t think Moonlight is for me. Our cultural blindness is part of America’s Jungian Shadow, which we refuse to engage with.

I know I’m supposed to be reviewing The Handmaiden, and I promise I’m getting to it. To do that, I have to confront the expectations around foreign films, the idea that the film will be fundamentally different because the director bills his surname first. But when you strip away the veil, either of exoticism or of xenophobia, The Handmaiden is a tremendous film that would be perfectly at home in an American theater, filling the same niche as Black Swan or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (another film that needed to be Westernized before we could see it).

At the center of The Handmaiden are three characters: Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the daughter of a legendary thief, “Count” Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a slimy-slick con man, and the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), an heiress kept under tight control by her uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong, who is 39 in real life but here plays a 60-something pervert).

Fujiwara recruits Sook-hee to help him con Lady Hideko into marrying him, at which point he would take her money and have her committed to a mental institution. But, like secrets, a con can only be kept by two people if one of them is dead. Carefully-laid plans to awry when Sook-hee and Lady Hideko begin to fall in love—incredibly erotic love, not the innocent, non-threatening lesbian schoolgirl romance we’re so often spoonfed.

It’s difficult to say much more without spoiling something. I can’t speak to how well it holds up on subsequent viewings, but the first time through, the unfolding of the intricate plot is marvelous. It engages in a few dirty tricks, including my biggest pet peeve, the artificial withholding of information, but by and large the twists in the story fall in just the right place: surprising but believable, invisible in the moment but obvious in hindsight.

The con is also a perfect thematic vehicle for a film where every character is pretending to be someone they’re not—even the non-schemers. Uncle Kouzuki is essentially a Korean turncoat, adopting the customs of the occupying Japanese as his own, rejecting the trappings of his country as “ugly.” His head servant, Miss Sasaki (Kim Hae-suk), acts the role of the stern house manager; in fact, she is Kouzuki’s ex-wife, who he left to marry a Japanese woman. Despite the divorce, the two still share a bed.

And, of course, our trio of main characters are almost entirely façade. But punctuating their deception are moments of emotional honesty, almost entirely manifesting (or maybe triggered by) the constant lurid tension between the characters. In a spectacular early scene, Lady Hideko, nude in a bath, complains of a jagged tooth. Sook-hee retrieves a thimble and inserts it into Hideko’s mouth, filing down the rough edge. The two stare into each other’s eyes as if entranced, both aware of the sexual nature of the act, both engaging in it slightly too long for plausible deniability.

The characters variously embrace or excuse their transgressive behaviors. Kouzuki seems the most at peace with himself, at least privately. “I’m just an old man who likes dirty stories,” he tells Count Fujiwara. Fujiwara, by contrast, insists throughout the film he’s only after money, but we discover otherwise when he gets rough with a sexual partner whose consent is at best questionable.

So each character lies to each other, and many lie to themselves. The film, both visually and structurally, explores these false fronts, asking which parts of our actions are “real.” The Handmaiden, for all its eroticism and melodrama, confronts some of the more difficult aspects of interpersonal relationships. Can we really know the people in our lives? Can we really know ourselves?

Does any of this sound “foreign”? If this film were made in the US, starring white people, it’d get about a dozen Oscar nominations. Though set in a different time and place, The Handmaiden is a demonstration that people are people, with all our psychosexual baggage, wherever you go. It’s a visually masterful, superbly constructed film deserving of our attention.

9/10.

3

IF YOU FEEL LIKE I FEEL, BABY…: On this day in 1973, Marvin Gaye released what some call his greatest album (after What’s Going On of course), Let’s Get It On. What few knew is that this album in particular was at least four years in the making. Some of the songs, such as Just to Keep You Satisfied, Distant Lover and Come Get to This were devised as far back as 1969, the year Marvin was determined to be more than “just a cog in Motown’s assembly”. 1969 also was the year Marvin got to produce another artist on the label - the doo-wop vocal group the Originals.

The aforementioned tracks were initially recorded in 1970 and would be edited and revised until Marvin was satisfied with them and this was before he was inspired by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War to create What’s Going On, which not only changed the direction of Motown, but also transformed Marvin into being his own artist after more than ten years in the business. After the success of What’s Going On, Motown desperately tried to get the famously reclusive superstar to tour. Marvin only performed intermittently throughout 1972 for special occasions, including a performance at the Kennedy Center at his hometown of Washington, D.C., and for Jesse Jackson’s PUSH organization.

Besides those two performances, Marvin had, for the most part, stayed true to the promise he made shortly after Tammi Terrell’s death that he would not headline another tour again, made easy for Marvin’s increasing paranoia and stage fright, with which he would need cocaine to ease his fears. In 1972, Marvin recorded the soundtrack and score to the blaxplotation film, Trouble Man, in Los Angeles. Loving the musical atmosphere - as well as the freewheelingness (and sunny skies) - of California, Marvin decided to move there permanently after production of Trouble Man ended.

The move from Detroit, where he had recorded most of his early classics and What’s Going On, at the now landmark Hitsville U.S.A. studios, to Los Angeles had both positive and negative reactions: the bad news was he and Anna Gordy’s marriage had fallen completely apart and Motown was further inspired to move its entire locations to Los Angeles rather than stay in Detroit (which Marvin himself protested the label’s move to L.A.); the good news was Marvin was now one of the most bankable and profitable black recording artists of the time, having recently renegotitated a deal with Motown that would net him over $1 million in earnings and the first taste of success was the Trouble Man soundtrack, which sold over a million and produced a top ten hit with the title track. Its success motivated Marvin to make his next album. The question was, “what will stick?”

Throughout 1972 and 1973, Marvin had different directions he wanted to take his music. One of his first ideas was to produce an entirely instrumental album including a series of songs that mixed soul, funk, jazz and rock (some examples would later show up in recordings such as Mondata, Cakes, Running Away from Love, I Love the Ground You Walk On and a reimagined version of Marvin’s previous hit, Chained). Another was, of course, another album of socially conscious messages that made the bulk of What’s Going On, including the infamous anti-Nixon anthem, You’re the Man, as well as I’m Going Home (Move), The World Is Rated X, Where Are We Going and Woman of the World. Around this time, he also began working with Motown producer and performer Willie Hutch on a series of recordings as well, including Try It, You’ll Like It, We Can Make It Baby and I’m Gonna Give You Respect. None of these promised projects were able to fully materialize.

However, inspiration finally came in the form of another producer - Ed Townsend. Townsend was a former R&B singer, who was known for the ballad, For Your Love but had settled on production work. He was working with the Impressions at the same time he began his association with Marvin. Townsend had sent Marvin an instrumental of his song inspired by his recent trip to rehab where he had battled alcoholism. When presented with the lyrics, Marvin advised his protege at the time, Kenneth Stover, to write new political lyrics. Marvin presented this version to Townsend in February 1973. But Townsend had this suggestion after hearing it: this song is about making love, not making change. It was only after Marvin met who later became his second wife - and some say the love of his life - Janis Hunter, a daughter of Townsend’s friend Barbara Hunter (who also attended the studio that fateful February night), that Marvin was motivated to improvise new lyrics that transformed the song from a political demo to one of the most impassioned pleas of love and sex ever uttered on wax.

The track became Let’s Get It On and mixed sexual liberation and funk with Marvin’s doo wop-influenced gospel delivery, including old Pentecostal sayings (Have you ever been sanctified?), comparing good love to the Holy Ghost. Mixing sex and church was always a dangerous combination, according to old-school religious figures, who had earlier criticized fellow soul artists such as Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke for “backsliding” against the church as all three were notable gospel artists before crossing over to pop, whereas Marvin went on to a full-fledged secular career after spending his childhood and early teen years singing in churches. Marvin’s father was a preacher for the ultra-strict House of God sect and he often let it be known that he didn’t appreciate Marvin mixing the two worlds of the sacred and profane, even as the now-retired preacher was now a raging alcoholic who was also a crossdresser and frequently cheated on Marvin’s mother. Nonetheless, Marvin was a free-spirited rebel and with Janis, he felt he had found his muse.

After several dates with Janis, Marvin felt more inspired to make an album full of romantic and erotic material. The powerful soul ballad, If I Should Die Tonight, was co-written by Marvin and Ed, the latter of whom came up with the title and the chorus (If I should die tonight, that would be far before my time, I won’t die blue, ‘cause I’ve known you) while Marvin completed the lyrics with very unique metaphors (how many eyes have seen their dreams, how many arms have felt their dreams, how many hearts have felt their worlds stand still?). As Ed Townsend later recounted, after one romantic evening with Janis, Marvin was determined to “sing that son of a bitch” after several attempts had initially failed to deliver (one demo version showed Marvin’s frustrations). The sensual track, Please Stay (Once You Go Away), is notable for Marvin singing about how he never “came like that before”, the “remix” to Let’s Get It On (titled Keep Gettin’ It On) brought the gospel out of Marvin as well as put in an anti-war message on top of it (won’t you rather make love, children, as opposed to war, like you know you should?). In relation, Let’s Get It On, the track itself, also had a strong social message that seemed to fit the hippie-directed message of free love. The line, there’s nothing wrong with me loving you, giving yourself to me can never be wrong if the love is true, could be interpreted in different ways: either as a message of interracial love or even gay love, as both topics were controversial at the time.

To fill in the latter half of the album, Marvin returned to his sixties compositions, Come Get to This, Distant Lover and Just to Keep You Satisfied. The inclusion of the Motown soul of Come Get to This fit the album as much as its sensual/social material had, while Distant Lover became the second most notable track on the album. The song’s strong doo-wop delivery set the tone of the album but not giving any indication that the song would one day turn to be one of Marvin’s greatest songs until he transformed the song into a passionate slow-burning showstopping anthem which helped to make Marvin one of the greatest performers of his time (regardless of his stage fright). The erotic You Sure Love to Ball was controversial for its time for its title (“ball” meant “fuck”) and use of sexual moaning (which was pretty much uncharted territory at the time). The finale, Just to Keep You Satisfied had a very varied history. The track was first given by Marvin to a struggling Motown act, the Monitors, whose lead singer, Richard Street, later rejoined his old school friends Otis Williams and Melvin Franklin, as Paul Williams’ official replacement in The Temptations in 1971. A year later, the Originals recorded their first version of this, which came close to the version Marvin himself recorded. In 1970, Marvin used the original pitch and melody of the Monitors version for his first recording of God Is Love before remaking it in time for What’s Going On a year later. Then in 1973, the Originals did another, more sensual version that featured Marvin backing them up doing his own harmony vocals. Eventually Marvin recorded the song himself and performed a 180 on the lyrics. Whereas the original song was a typical love ballad, Marvin’s version that was issued on Let’s Get It On was a very solemn, sad farewell to Marvin’s fading marriage to Anna, producing an album that while on the surface seemed to be about the joy of sex but turned into a personal portrait of a man in pain.

After its release in 1973, Let’s Get It On peaked at number one on the R&B charts and number two on the pop charts, becoming one of Marvin’s (and at the time Motown’s) best-selling albums of all time. Its impact helped to further transform R&B music into what critics called “simple, basic material” to something more sophisticated and subtle. 44 years later and the album still resonates as strongly as it did when Marvin recorded it.

In the wolf’s mouth (solavellan)

Solas sees Thandis’ scars and asks about it. She doesn’t like his tone and he doesn’t like what he hears.

Or, a question about teeth and wounds which Solas does not answer for some time.


Solas’ hand froze. The charcoal stub in his long, slender fingers scratched to a halt.

Thandis frowned. “Is there something wrong?”

“There are scars on your back, vhenan.”

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