Review: “Handmaiden,” “Being 17” reminders that films can create subliminal, and sexy, eroticism

The Handmaiden sets a British novel in 1930s South Korea.
The Handmaiden sets a British novel in 1930s South Korea.

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Two new foreign films are a reminder that you can’t rely on American movies to depict sexuality with anything like art or intelligence, much less any real eroticism. Sex in our multiplex tends to be portrayed with the finesse of a bare-assed bumper car derby — ridiculous, crass, or all of the above (hello, Fifty Shades of Grey). Or, a sexual situation is elided by a fade-out as a candle flame flutters and a bedroom door eases shut. Usually, it’s just a dirty joke. But South Korea’s The Handmaiden and France’s Being 17 remind us that sexual desire can be a rich, and richly varied, motor for movies. (Word has it that there’s another sexual tornado heading toward our screens this fall — the French film Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert as a rape victim who turns the tables on her attacker.)

Lesbian novelist Sarah Waters’ witty Victorian pastiche, Fingersmith, has already been turned into a pretty good 2005 British TV miniseries starring Sally Hawkins, Elaine Cassidy, Charles Dance and Imelda Staunton. If you haven’t read Waters (Tipping the Velvet, The Night Watch, The Little Stranger, The Paying Guests) she’s a fantastic, postmodern mimic of historic fiction.

Fingersmith, in particular, is a fantastic bit of literary ventriloquism, a three-part epic potboiler. It’s the kind of thing Charles Dickens might have written — if he thought he could get away not only with a twisty plot about a long con game, mistaken identity and the horrors of false imprisonment in an asylum, but also a heavy-breathing lesbian love affair and a subplot about wealthy collectors of erotica.

In The Handmaiden, director Chan-wook Park takes this very British, Victorian novel, updates it to Japan-occupied South Korea of the 1930s and makes it his own in ways that you would expect from the hyper-stylist maker of Oldboy, Three . . .  Extremes and Thirst.

Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a city pickpocket who poses as a lady’s maid, earning a job as the handmaiden to Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). She’s a parentless heiress living in the countryside with her deceased aunt’s husband, Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo), a collector of rare illustrated manuscripts. His mansion is divided into two styles — Japanese and Western, and the estate and its grounds seem virtually edible: emerald-green lawns and ancient cherry trees bursting with pink-white blooms. But the beauty of the place conceals a cultivated rot beneath the surface. In the same way, every single character is not exactly what he or she appears to be.

Take, for instance, the handsome art instructor Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha). He’s no count, in fact, but an old, crooked acquaintance of Sook-Hee’s. And he’s counting on her strategic position as Hideko’s closest companion to abet his courtship of the rich young lady.

Sook-Hee is desperate for the cut of her fortune, if Fujiwara succeeds. But her task is complicated by a growing attraction to her mistress, paving the way for several scenes that make the most of the subliminal eroticism of the buttons, stays, bows, laces and yards of silk that bind Lady Hideko’s body. More than simple titillation, the movie’s more explicit sex scenes reinforce its theme about women uniting in their struggle to escape the oppression of men and society at large. Oh, they’re also hot.

To go much further into The Handmaiden’s plot would be to rob surprise from anyone who has not read the Waters novel. There are still discoveries even for those who have, because Park’s adaptation is pretty loose following the film’s midway point — which contains a dramatic reversal that’s probably the most satisfying such moment in a movie since The Sixth Sense’s big reveal.

One warning to the squeamish, though. Park dispenses with Waters’ final, enjoyable plot twist. Instead, in the last third he amps up the lurid, psychosexual tone he’s known for. Things get so extreme, you won’t know whether to giggle or be grossed out. (Among the morbid details, there’s a spectacular call-out to the infamous octopus-eating scene from Oldboy.) But if you can stomach the director’s yen for the ick, he delivers a sumptuous, sensual melodrama you’ll be thinking about for a long time.

Much more down-to-earth but equally memorable is Being 17. French director André Téchiné directed a gay coming-of-age masterpiece with 1994’s Wild Reeds. His newest is as good, maybe even better. It was the favorite of all the features I watched for this year’s Out On Film festival.

Set in a small city in the gorgeous Pyrenees Mountains, it centers on high schooler Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), whose mom Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain) is a doctor and his father is a helicopter pilot serving in the military. At school, Damien is a bit of a brain, a bit of a geek. He’s also the target of random bullying by Thomas (Corentin Fila), a loner who lives with his adoptive farming parents way up in the mountains.

being-17-andre-techineDespite their enmity, the boys are brought together when circumstances force Thomas to come live with Damien’s family for a while. It’s Marianne’s idea. Thomas’ fragile, pregnant mother is on bed rest while she tries to bring a baby to term; she can use a break from Thomas. And without having to make the three-hour round-trip trek between school and his mountain home, Thomas can work on getting his grades up. That is, if he and Damien don’t manage to kill each other while they’re in close quarters.

Viewers will have started suspecting, even before the boys do, that their hostility is actually a cover both are using to hide an uncomfortable attraction they feel. The film takes its time to sketch out these two young men, and in doing so it earns our attention and genuine concern for the characters. We hope they’ll learn to channel their energy toward rather than against each other. With good work from the young actors and a grounding central performance from Kiberlain, fine direction by Téchiné and a wise script by the director and co-writer Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Girlhood), the movie is humane, subtle, smart and, yeah, sexy.

The Handmaiden. With Min-hee Kim, Kim Tae-ri, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo. Directed by Chan-wook Park. In Korean and Japanese, with subtitles. Unrated. 144 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

Being 17. With Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila. Directed by André Téchiné. In French with subtitles. Unrated. 116 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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