FilmSpace: The Handmaiden; Raw; Going in Style - reviews

CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the big movies of the moment

A FILM of the year contender, a cannibalistic coming-of-age drama, and a pensioner-led crime caper make up this week’s releases.

The Handmaiden – ★★★★★

“Everyone is performing their roles so damned well.” Part psychological thriller, part erotica, The Handmaiden is a tiered cake-shaped puzzle. It’s manipulative and scheming; erotic and genuine.

Across its three parts it tells the stories of Sook-Hee and Lady Izumi Hideko - the former a common criminal; the latter a Japanese heiress. Hideko is to be married Sook-Hee’s employer, a conman promising an enriching life, but who actually intends on committing Hideko to an asylum, stealing her inheritance in the process.

“Each night in bed I think of her assets” says ‘Count Fujiwara’, devoted to his plot. That loving notion of thinking of her in bed, that sexualising of deceit, and that commitment to deception weaves itself in and out of the characters’ roles like invasive octopus tentacles (the film has them, too).

It’s visually unrelenting, in its violence and its sexuality.

Hideko lives with her Uncle Kouzuki, the head of the household who rules the roost with threats rolling off his ink-stained tongue. He obsesses over historical erotica, commanding the women in his life to read it aloud for male guests. It’s an unaggressive way of portraying sexual violence on screen, as prying eyes of men reduce the reader to masturbation fodder.

Except – everyone is performing their roles so damned well, and what you think you know is twisted and subverted more than once. There is no naivety in Japanese-occupied Korea. Authenticity is hidden just out of sight, under the lavish jewellery and the seductive sound of bells. It’s visually unrelenting, in its violence and its sexuality.

We’re privy to Sook-Hee’s thoughts, which often contradict something she said aloud moments earlier. Everything is slightly amiss, everything is balancing on a fine thread, and so any tumble would be seismic – perception is everything in The Handmaiden, and each character is always one step ahead.

An early contender for film of the year. Stay spoiler-free. Let The Handmaiden take you by the hand, while it sensually grazes your elbow for good measure.

Raw – ★★★★☆

Raw is tasty. This full-length animalistic debut from Julia Ducournau is shocking and sexy, following young and introverted protagonist Justine as she joins vet school.

Intense initiation rituals at the school awaken some sins of the flesh, virginal and vegetarian as she is. Her sister, Alexia, is comparatively liberated, losing herself in disco lights and the bravado of being a senior. She’s also not a vegetarian.

If recent psychological coming-of-age dramas The Falling and The Fits are delicate strings, Raw is pure heavy metal – it’s primal and sweaty and soaked in blood. Alexia has been through this all before, so she’s comfortable in the pulsing rave lights and cramped dancefloors. She thinks Justine needs to loosen up.

Raw is the feeling when you scratch the itch.

After being made to eat raw rabbit kidney, her loosening up comes through sleepless nights scratching her skin until it flakes. When Raw debuted, paramedics were called to the Toronto International Film Festival where people were fainting over its highly graphic depictions of body horror. I will admit to looking away as a school nurse peels skin off Justine’s lacerated stomach. Elsewhere, she nibbles on and sucks at a decapitated finger.

These cannibalistic urges are ugly, and the film is ugly, too – students joke about anorexia, and the sight of animal carcasses cut open for medical research can’t help but be uncomfortably arresting. The school itself is a brutalist monstrosity. But it’s shot with a delicate affection, and there are stunning moments, like when Justine dances to a profanity-laden rap song in the mirror, embracing (or giving into) a side of life she has never dabbled in before.

Justine is the wunderkind of the family, it should be easy to just keep her head down and get on with it. It’s not that simple when you feel the pressure of conformity, a post-adolescence identity crisis, and a stomach rumble for something mashed potato can’t quite satisfy. It’s a coming-of-age cannibal film. Raw is the feeling when you scratch the itch.

Going in Style – ★★★☆☆

Directed by Zach Braff of Scrubs fame, there’s none of that kooky humour that made JD such an adorable protagonist in Going in Style. Instead, it’s a by-the-numbers crime caper, the likes of which you can already deduce upon watching the trailer.

It’s not totally without merit – its starpower is considerable, with Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Ardkin making for a warm trio of protagonists. They have been hung out to dry by their bank and their former employer, and are facing serious financial troubles. Having been present at the time of a bank robbery, Caine’s Joe is inspired to carry out his own heist. Not for financial gain; rather, he just wants the money he is owed.

It’s a recession-era Taken. Cost-cutting measures by companies and mortgage lenders are in the news every other day, and Going in Style is a cathartic sticking-it-to-the-man nonsense. It’s innocent in its sense of juvenility, but it does side proudly with the working class against a greedy system (even if it is a highly-financed Hollywood release).

It lacks an edge, feels void of tension, and, for a film about crime, there’s a distinct lack of danger

It relies on the draw of the would-be vigilantes, since the plot itself is nothing new. It lacks an edge, feels void of tension, and, for a film about crime, there’s a distinct lack of danger. The laughs are polite and inoffensive. The pensioners are all remarkably good people – Freeman’s Willie has stepped up in place of an absent father, Arkin’s Albert has drawn the attention of a worker in their local supermarket, and Joe is housing his daughter and granddaughter so the youngest can afford school.

Jodie Foster’s Money Monster was similar in that it focuses the blame where the working class believe it lies – with the people holding and, more importantly, controlling the money. Where that was a confrontational film, Going in Style is playful and safe. Money Monster is a gunshot to the bourgeoisie, while Going in Style is a Nerf gun bullet to a bank cashier. It’s perfectly fine and exactly the film you think it is.

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