Apprentice, The Handmaiden, Tower, and Chasing Asylum.
The Picturehouse Central is a wonderful cinema. I love the designs of cinemas, their layouts and décor, their seating arrangements, whether the screens have draw-curtains to signify the start and end of a film, their lighting… it all tells you something about the cinema, and the place and time of their creation. My VUE back in Scunthorpe, for example, you can tell has been around for over a decade with no significant changes by virtue of its low-hanging ceiling in the walkway to the screens, the fact that there’s a significant gap in seating between the two halves of the screen, and the attempt at vintage typography in the screen numbers and “Now Playing” poster holders. Also by virtue of the seating arrangements giving you actual legroom as standard rather than at a premium.
The Picturehouse Central in London really is a marvellous work of cinema design, though. Setting aside the fact that it has two floors dedicated to two separate bars (one with an actual restaurant that you’d better believe I will take advantage of at some point), the building seems tailor-made to create a sense of opulence and class in the act of watching a film, that your ticket price is completely justifiable for a change. Seating is tiered but in a way where every viewer, in every screen, gets an unobstructed view even if someone is sat in an equivalent seat number the row in front of you. Lighting is low but in a classy, old-school Hollywood way that doesn’t distract the eye whilst the film is playing. The seats themselves are super comfortable, and even slide forward at an angle slightly if you’re uncomfortable but don’t want to lose the optimal viewing position. And the screens have draw-curtains! I’m a major geek for cinema screens having draw-curtains.
I know this may not be of interest to the vast majority of you reading these pieces, but I thought I’d espouse words on it since about 80% of my screenings are going to take place in this one cinema, and because I want to make it clear that I really don’t mind dragging myself into this place in time for 9:15am every day for the next week and a bit in order to start catching press screenings. That’s good because it means I’m seeing the films in the best possible scenarios and that, barring occasional bouts of tiredness that come from Moving at 7am, I am fully attentive and appreciative of the films that I am reporting on for you, the good readers of The Hullfire. So, with that all mentioned, my first press screening of the day was Apprentice (Grade: C-), a film that’s really good right up until it frustratingly isn’t.
A Singapore drama, Apprentice follows prisons officer Aiman (Firdaus Rahman), an ex-Army officer who followed up his service by enlisting in Prisons and has been transferred to Malay’s maximum-security, where he finds himself drawn towards its aging Chief Executioner, Warder (Wan Hanafi Su), who is looking to take on an apprentice. Much of the brisk 96 minute film then ends up revolving around the questions of whether legally justified murder is still morally justifiable and whether or not Aiman will be able to reconcile the two and do the job he’s being groomed for. Its best moments are the ones where it clinically and bluntly deals with the realities of a practice that still occurs in many countries, one that many people privately support, but that society is still reticent to acknowledge its part in – semi-covert trips to fishing warehouses to buy hanging rope, detailed conversations about the processes involved in planning a hanging, the efficiency of a hanging itself in a scene that is genuinely disturbing to witness. The film also tries to relate the issue to Singapore at large, when Warder complains that the country’s new generation isn’t being bred with the fortitude required to continue his position, a potentially quiet admission that the country has moved past this line of work altogether.
But then the film, in its misguided attempt at objectivity, proceeds to piss away all of its goodwill by copping out on taking a side with a frankly embarrassing attempt at an ambiguous ending. I honestly briefly thought the projector had eaten up the last 10 minutes of film, such is the suddenness and unfulfilling nature of this so-called ending, deciding that actually paying off dramatic conflict is too much work and opting instead to cut-to-black. Even if Apprentice had bothered to craft an ending, though, I would still have hesitated to call it “great” as there is a twist here, revealed early on but I’ll refrain from mentioning it anyway. It’s meant to provide an additional conflict-of-interest in Aiman’s apprenticeship, but in practice all it does is create false drama that the film doesn’t need, and muddies the main conflict by adding prior personal baggage that detracts from the more interesting struggle of reconciling something that civilised society has deemed acceptable but which you know is morally wrong.
Hanging also featured in the second film I saw that day, Park Chan-wook’s gloriously trashy The Handmaiden (Grade: B+), albeit with its most prominent scene being the funniest attempted-hanging in a work of fiction since Paranoia Agent. If you’re surprised that an attempted-hanging could be played for near-literal gallows humour, then you must be new to the works of Park Chan-wook who seemed to have set out here with the intention of creating the Park Chan-wook-iest film it is possible to make. There are even two separate instances where the camera focusses on an octopus in some way! That complete releasing of all inhibitions, and perhaps as a response to having to tone down some of his more openly provocative tendencies for his criminally-underrated English-language debut Stoker, has led to Chan-wook finally making the lurid, openly-trashy psycho-sexual drama he has clearly spent his entire career wanting to make.
All of this, of course, makes it very hard to talk about The Handmaiden in great detail. Being a Park Chan-wook film, the story is filled with more twists than a whole season of Lost, in particular dropping a huge one at the halfway mark from which point the film shoots off into the stratosphere and never really returns back home to Earth until 15 minutes before the end. Then, there’s the fact that this is a family publication, and so talking in specific detail about what often turns into a full-on erotic thriller is going to be a fast way to get this place shut down. In as vague terms as I can manage, then, The Handmaiden follows the appointment of a new Korean handmaiden (Kim Tae-ri) to a mentally-unstable Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) as she prepares to be forcibly wed to her elderly Korean uncle who desperately wants to be Japanese (Cho Jin-woong) and finds herself wooed by a Count (Ha Jung-woo). Unsurprisingly, nobody is who they really say they are, everybody has their own agenda, and that collection of gambits, allegiances, relationships, and double-crosses all end up colliding with each other in joyously entertaining fashion, just like most all of Park Chan-wook’s other movies.
Chan-wook is still one of the best directors in the business today, able to be visually exciting and pacey without becoming distractingly showy, and The Handmaiden lets him apply all of these tricks to the production design of a classy period drama, which provides the perfect juxtaposition for all of the sex, violence, and meticulously-timed black comedy that the story provides. There’s an excellent critique of erotica in here, and more specifically of how mid-30s erotica provided men with misogynistic ideas of consent and what constitutes sexual pleasure, whilst the predatory nature of oppressive sexuality ends up explored through a quietly disturbing character beat that only grows more disturbing the more the story has to return to it, and the eventual conflict goes all-in on the suffocating influence of the hetero-patriarchy for those who do end up under its thumb. There’s even an active attempt to shoot the sex scenes in a way that doesn’t come across as exploitative or Male Gaze-y – I’m not sure it completely succeeds, but props for trying.
I hesitate to bust out the unconditional rave reviews yet, however, as I didn’t feel that same spark that I got when I watched Oldboy or Stoker for the first time. For one, I definitely think the film is 15 minutes too long, with it having basically wrapped itself up by the two hour mark but proceeding to spend another 15 minutes tying up even more loose ends and dragging itself out for seemingly no reason other than for Chan-wook to indulge himself in some good-old-fashioned Park Chan-wook violence. Whilst for two, I feel the film doesn’t really start running until the end of Part I (the film is split into 3 parts), just before the hour mark – although it is still entertaining prior to then, a lot of Part I is groundwork-laying and that didn’t gel well with a slightly tired Me. That said, I can already tell that the film will grow upon repeat viewings, especially now that I’m attuned to its rhythm and structure, since I know I missed so much this first time around. So whilst that “Instant Classic” spark may not have been there for me, The Handmaiden is still an excellently trashy time nonetheless.
The joys of a festival schedule means that you can often be shuffled into a totally different film tonally than the one you just got out of with basically no chance to catch your breath. Such was the case as my screening of a fun lurid psycho-drama was almost immediately followed by Tower (Grade: B), a harrowing and powerful documentary about the Austin University shootings of 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the campus’s tower with a bunch of rifles and proceeded to open fire on the crowds below, killing 14 and injuring 35 more. The film opts to primarily depict the massacre to the viewer through the medium of rotoscoped animation, utilising actors to play younger versions of the various featured subjects, in a way that calls to mind Waltz with Bashir. The animation can occasionally be off-putting, as you often get by nature of rotoscoping, but for the most part it works, particularly through the decision to depict much of the shooting in grayscale and stark whites, whilst any anecdotes outside of that get a vivid full-colour treatment.
Indeed, the intent of the animation and the film’s structure is about putting the viewer in the middle of that chaos and unflinchingly showing you just how terrifying it would be to experience it for real. It also puts the human element back into the story by purposefully limiting its focus to the viewpoints of a few key players – the pregnant woman who was the first one shot and lay bleeding out in the open for hours, the first officer responding to the scene, one female student who spent the whole time hiding out, etc. – in order to work through events in a step-by-step manner, where you learn the facts and specifics at the same time as they would have. This lets the film zero in on themes of survivor’s guilt, bystander syndrome, those everyday heroes who risked their own lives to help whomever they could, and those fleeting connections made during the terror that were never pursued afterwards.
Tower is often powerful, particularly with that conceit – since one of my favourite films of the century is Cloverfield, I really appreciated that ground-view “this is what it was like and how terrifying is it to be here” design – but it also just misses out on greatness. A topic like this demands tying back into modern culture at large, what with an event like this feeling eerily prescient of today’s American societal culture where mass shootings are a near-daily occurrence, and that’s just not something that Tower is interested in doing. Save for a soundbite of a report from America’s Newsman, Walter Cronkite, set to a brief montage of news reports of recent mass shootings, Tower doesn’t tie itself into the modern climate enough, content instead to stick to that human element. That is fine, because the story it tells is still powerful enough and told well enough for this to be affecting viewing, but it does keep it from becoming something truly special.
A lack of tying into modern culture at large was not a problem that afflicted the other documentary I saw that day, however. Chasing Asylum (N/R) is an absolutely vital and horrifying piece of cinema, investigating as it does Australia’s hard-line immigration policies and its utterly inhumane procedures for dealing with refugees. Director Eva Orner piles on the failures one after another with absolutely no mercy and no letting up – smuggling cameras into the refugee detention centres in Manus Island, talking with aid workers who are given no direction to help these refugees who have risked their lives for nothing and won’t be leaving any time soon, relaying intimidation threats that those who wished to speak up against abusive guards received, showing images of tin shacks stacked from front-to-back with hundreds of bunk beds in tropical weather. Every time the bottom appears to have been found, social workers detail allegations of child molestation, some refugees sew their mouths shut to protest their draconian treatment by guards who won’t let them wear caps in the mess hall, or Australia will waste tens of millions of Australian dollars setting up a voluntary resettlement program in Cambodia.
None of this feels exploitative to watch, though, because Orner is constantly finding the humanity in the situation, focussing on those refugees that are being mistreated for their desire to receive the human rights they have a claim to when Australia signed The 1951 Refugee Act with the rest of the United Nations. Families talk about how they were ripped apart, former inmates recall their first-hand experiences of the various riots they were stuck in the middle of, aid workers and camp staff express their defeating frustration at not being able to help those they’re in charge of helping get through the day without self-harming. And throughout it all, the same rhetoric rings out from the mouths of Australian governmental officials, “We stopped the boats.” But that’s not really true, since the refugees keep trying to make that futile journey anyway, and Orner effectively and correctly responds with, “OK, but look long and hard at the cost.”
It’s furious filmmaking, and though Orner frequently stated throughout the post-film Q&A that she made this film with the intent to “shame Australia,” she clearly knows the added resonance that Chasing Asylum will take on for the rest of the world. Given Brexit, the slow and insidious mainstreaming of rampant xenophobia and racism thanks to the mainstream media, and an American Presidential Election being fought with this kind of dehumanising rhetoric, Chasing Asylum has the power to shame most every developed country. I feel weird giving something like this a rating – hence why I haven’t – but it is a film that needs to be experienced by everyone. We need to be reminded that these people we reduce to statistics or lesser beings out of reckless patriotism, whether that be through open xenophobia or propagating the myth of the “economic migrant” (as one man did in the Q&A), are human beings, and Orner’s film does that exceptionally.
Tomorrow: Damien Chazelle follows up his outstanding breakthrough, Whiplash, with an ode to the Hollywood musical, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.