I get in line early at the Salle Du 60 theater to see Park Chan-Wook’s AGASSI: THE HANDMAIDEN. This is one of the few films that I came here excited to see, as I’m a big fan of his Vengeance Trilogy. To show my level of excitement, my wife Justina and I consider OLDBOY to be our “couples’ movie.” I’ll let that one sink in a bit. I’m sure it proves more than a little informative – maybe a tad too informative – about us.
Anyway, I’m in line and I’ve got time to do some people watching and listening. I don’t know why, but every time I’m in this particular line, I always end up standing next to assistant brats. These are the twenty-somethings that work for distributors, producers, and film companies, that bring out the film industry curmudgeon in me, as their loud declarations of which film is brilliant and/or who they saw and/or who their boss dissed and/or what party was just “ridiculous” makes me want to chase them out of line and off my lawn. More often than not there are three to four kids, trading apples or bananas or some kind of fruit between them, biting in between statements of absolute certainty what “just can’t be missed.” Hovering around them is usually two or three young guys who are allowed to get a word in on rare moments, but for the most part they just nod approvingly, as if they are totally in on it all or answer a direct question – usually about where someone else from their group is that was totally supposed to meet them there. And routinely, that person or persons will swoop in, to the chagrin and abject hatred in several languages of all the people standing in line behind them. Adorable film moppets, they are. Our future, really.
THE HANDMAIDEN (AGASSI)
Chan-Wook Park’s THE HANDMAIDEN (AGASSI) tells the story of subterfuge in 1930s Korea, during Japanese occupation, where Sookee has been hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress beholden to an old perverted uncle planning to marry her to secure her fortune. However, in truth, she is actually a pickpocket enlisted by a swindler posing as a Japanese Count, to help him seduce the heiress so he (and they) may steal the heiress’s fortune. It’s an intricate and full proof plan assured of success – that is until Sookee and the heiress begin to discover feelings for one another.
Ironically, THE HANDMAIDEN (AGASSI) is about the unfolding of a brilliantly conceived and precisely detailed plan of deceit, while the film itself is also brilliantly conceived and detailed – with its success hinged on how well it cloaks its parlor game. The film is told in three chapters, from different character’s points of view, to not just shed light on what we have seen, but explain the motivations behind those actions as we watch the sting play out. And what plays out is a thrilling, sexy game between three players, clouded and sharpened by their greed, lust, and even love for each other. Spiced by some S&M play and explicit sexual discovery, the plot twists turn on themselves in a dizzying manner with the lives and loves of the characters hanging in the balance as the double and triple crosses are revealed. As mentioned, the sex is explicit, and (as with all of Park’s films) there will be blood, but even for those that would normally shy away from films with those elements, they’ll find the game is very much afoot and would likely find it impossible not to become thoroughly wrapped up and thrilled by the proceedings as well. Bottom line, I can’t recommend this film enough.
Following the screening, and in fact prior to the screening, there was a flurry of texts between myself and Rose Kuo regarding getting a ticket to the highly anticipated screening of Andrea Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY today. It was a big deal because Rose was instrumental in Arnold being chosen as a Filmmaker in Residence at Lincoln Center while we were there. In fact, she had to fight to have the program created in the first place – as routinely happens with her at film organizations and film fests. (Note to self – rarely does anyone embrace innovation when you first bring it up.) And this was the film Arnold was developing when we had her there in New York, so…kind of a big deal for us. Anyway, Rose had managed to get an extra ticket but it needed to be picked up at the film company’s office and it was unclear if that had happened or if I was supposed to go get it myself or if an iPhone could spontaneously combust if there was enough mutual furious texting combined with a clear lack of understanding and communication skills between two people on an alarming time limit. Finally, connections were made, tickets were sorted out, people were in lines before they were closed, and a movie was about to be seen.
Andrea Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY opens with a scene of teenage Star, dumpster diving with her younger brother and sister. As they hitchhike back home with their spoils, she spies a van full of young people pulling into a neighboring store’s parking lot. The young people, she soon discovers, are a travelling group selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Encouraged by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), she leaves her abusive home and joins the group, soon getting caught up in their lifestyle of grifting money off locals, and partying all night long at roadside motels, fueled by whatever alcohol and drugs they can get their hands on until they pick up to hit the next town. That, combined with her mercurial attraction to Jake, makes for a heady mix and a welcome distraction from the dead end life she left behind. However, she can also see how easily she can be replaced and discarded from her newly adopted “family” if she isn’t careful to protect herself.
AMERICAN HONEY taps into the hopelessness and despair of the lower class in this country from a young person’s perspective. While older adults deal with the realities of a severely depressed economy and the dwindling prospects for a prosperous life, the next generation can easily see nothing but struggle with no avenues for a secure life ahead of them. Star is asked, “Got anyone that’s gonna miss you?” And on her negative reply: “Good. You’re hired.” That’s the world Arnold believes they are seeing and the film explores how they deal with it. A couple times in the film, someone is asked what their dreams are. And the reply is that no one has ever asked them that question. The idea being that things are so bad and uncertain now, that everyone has no choice but to live in the moment, take what you can get from people, and then move on. There is a BADLANDS flair to the relationship between Star and Jake, and as “real” as Arnold tries to make what she captures on screen, with improvised dialogue and scenes, even she can’t resist a pure-cinema moment like having Star exclaim, “This is America!” as she hangs out of a car speeding down the highway. There is an invigorating energy, and nagging angst – and at times, even dread – running throughout the film, but it also runs considerably longer than necessary, frankly. We understand quickly that this is a slice of life and the long running time could be trying for audiences. However, a personal desire for more brevity in storytelling aside, the film is most definitely an invigorating ride.
Afterwards, at dinner, Rose offers me her ticket to see the gala screening of THE NICE GUYS. However, while I’m wearing my suit and brought my emergency bow tie just in case this kind of thing came up, I’m not dressed in a white shirt and my tie isn’t standard-issue black. This leads to a debate at the table of whether or not just borrowing a black tie that Rose has back at the Splendid (she’s a mom AND a film fest vet of the highest order, so she comes prepared for these “crises”) or if I need to go back to my place to put on a proper shirt and tie – lest I be barred from setting foot on the red carpet. Assessments are made and conclusions are arrived at which results in me wolfing down the rest of my pizza and wine and speed walking back to my room. This ticket will put me in the orchestra at the Lumiére for the first time (as opposed to being high up in the balcony) so all agree I should play it safe. I get back to my place, change out shirts, but decide to gamble on the tie because I’m all about living on the edge. Speed walking back to the theater, I realize that I have overshot the mark past the partitions and have to double back only to find that it looks like it extends all the way back to Nice. However, I am able to duck in at a weak spot in the defenses and insinuate myself much closer to the entrance. This is ironic since I had made a comment earlier in the day, following typical Cannes line cutting abuses that I entertained defending my place utilizing some Krav Maga. So, I guess everything balances out on the Croisette after all.
THE NICE GUYS
Shane Black’s THE NICE GUYS is lovingly set in the groovy 70s, where hard scrabbling private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and paid muscle Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) are thrown together by necessity to try and find a missing girl. Meanwhile, a porn star’s recent death keeps playing into the case until the two men and March’s daughter find themselves in the midst of a conspiracy that goes much deeper than they anticipated and has now put all of their lives in danger.
THE NICE GUYS promises a lot of nostalgic, knowing humor and entertaining characters via Shane Black’s particular brand of buddy cop movie flourish and cultural reference-heavy style. And it definitely delivers the goods as well as tossing softballs to Gosling and Crowe to hit out of the park over and over again via various set pieces and character bits. The film doesn’t necessarily go to another level in terms of the hilarity that could ensue or sharpness in the ongoing commentary in Black’s films on Los Angeles social culture, but frankly that’s quibbling on my part. So, in the interest of managing expectations, the film delivers a fine if not transcendent Shane Black evening at the movies. And for most of us, we’ll take that gift and run with it.