Movie reviews: The Handmaiden a psychosexual drama on a grand scale, Alice flops despite eye candy

Johnny Depp (left) reprises his role as the Mad Hatter in Alice Through The Looking Glass. Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris (both left) in Our Kind Of Traitor. Kim Min Hee stars as Lady Hideko in The Handmaiden.
Kim Min Hee stars as Lady Hideko in The Handmaiden.PHOTOS: SHAW ORGANISATION, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY
Johnny Depp (left) reprises his role as the Mad Hatter in Alice Through The Looking Glass. Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris (both left) in Our Kind Of Traitor. Kim Min Hee stars as Lady Hideko in The Handmaiden.
Johnny Depp (left) reprises his role as the Mad Hatter in Alice Through The Looking Glass.PHOTOS: SHAW ORGANISATION, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY
Johnny Depp (left) reprises his role as the Mad Hatter in Alice Through The Looking Glass. Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris (both left) in Our Kind Of Traitor. Kim Min Hee stars as Lady Hideko in The Handmaiden.
Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris (both above) in Our Kind Of Traitor.PHOTOS: SHAW ORGANISATION, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

The Handmaiden explores lesbian romance and cultural and class taboos

One part Gothic fantasy, one part softcore thriller, The Handmaiden (R21, 140 minutes, opens tomorrow, ) blurs the line between highbrow and sexploitation so skilfully you will be left wondering if you just watched a big-budget skin flick or a particularly smutty arthouse production.

Not that it matters - celebrated Korean film-maker Park Chan Wook (Oldboy, 2003) fills the frames with images so lush there is little time to ask if one form of titillation is more correct than the other.

The story is told in three parts, starting from the point of view of Sook Hee (ingenue Kim Tae Ri), born into a family of Fagin-like tricksters in 1930s Korea, then still under Japanese occupation. Pretending to be an experienced handmaiden, she finds a job with the aristocratic family of Lady Hideko (Kim Min Hee).

The second part of the story is told from Lady Hideko's point of view and the final section unites their voices.

The men in the film, represented by Hideko's oppressive uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin Woong) and Sook Hee's equally misogynistic mentor Fujiwara (Ha Jung Woo) are the antagonists, each smugly seeing the women as their playthings, figuratively and literally.

Writer-director Park re-interprets the Victorian England of the 2002 novel Fingersmith, by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, in pre-war Korea and takes care to preserve the class divisions found in the book.

Inside Kouzuki's sumptuous mansion, drenched in deep browns and greys, the blossoming lesbian romance between Sook Hee and Hideko breaks not just cultural and class taboos, it also flouts the edict against fraternising with the native population, giving the pairing an extra frisson of danger.

The preoccupations that made Park a giant outside his native land are on display here - his operatic way with psychosexual drama, revenge on a grand scale and, of course, that squirmy symbol of the subconscious, the octopus.

In one scene, high-society men in evening wear gather in Kouzuki's library to hear a very specific kind of kink, recited in the most elegant way. There is a hint of the sophisticated perversions found in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but Park adds a Korean twist to the scenario. Here, and elsewhere, especially in the love scenes, the film-maker erases the line between gazing and voyeurism.

One caveat: This reviewer watched the international version of the film. The version released in Singapore has about four minutes of explicit sex removed to meet R21 restrictions. Otherwise, it would have received the maximum five stars in this review.

Six years ago, Alice In Wonderland (2010) took a billion dollars at the global box office. It was a work that blended director Tim Burton's eccentricities and Disney's experience with princesses, or princess-like characters.

The sequel, Disney's Alice Through The Looking Glass(PG, 113 minutes, now showing, ), is set some years after the first movie. Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is now more like a Disney princess than ever: She is a ship's captain and sails the world, hauling treasure and fighting pirates.

Her private affairs at home are in a crisis, however. Absolem, the wise butterfly, (voiced by Alan Rickman, just before his death last year) leads her back to Underland, where the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) lies deathly ill.

Burton saw that the Alice stories, both in the 1951 Disney cartoon and in the Lewis Carroll books, are made up mostly of chance encounters with nonsensical creatures, with visual puns and wordplay to keep things interesting.

That structural weakness was fixed in the 2010 film, when Alice became a heroic protagonist rather than a passive spectator. The sequel's director James Bobin pushes her transformation into an action heroine far past Wonderland, into the realm of madness, and not the good kind.

Red Queen Iracebeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and The White Queen Mirana (Anne Hathaway) and the Underland ensemble return, but the movie's chief concern is the chase scene. Alice in a time machine hurtles across the years (visualised as an ocean) pursued by Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen, employing a Werner Herzog accent that is funny for about one minute)

Everything is weightless; nothing is grounded in reality. The computer graphics overwhelm all. Bobin knows how to handle zany, having helmed The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (2014). But there are rules to the Muppet fantasy realm, just as there has to be a logic to how Wonderland works. Bobin ignores them all for 3D-driven eye candy.

A grim kind of logic - when money enters, decency leaves - permeates the spy thriller Our Kind Of Traitor(M18, 108 minutes, opens tomorrow, ). Based on the 2010 John le Carre novel of the same name, it is a good example of le Carre's post-Cold War preoccupation with capitalism gone amuck.

Ewan McGregor is Perry, a mild-mannered university lecturer on holiday in Morocco with wife Gail (Naomie Harris). He is drawn into the embrace of charismatic Russian mobster Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), who claims to be the world's top money launderer. Perry's conscience entangles him in Dima's affairs, triggering the involvement of British agent Hector (Damian Lewis).

Director Susanna White (Nanny McPhee Returns, 2010) does her best with thin material in which the key characters are good or bad, with no shades of grey. Only Hector has an air of mystery.

This is not the sort of spy movie with plot twists galore or helicopter stunts; this is a character study and a cautionary tale about unchecked wealth.

The problem is that Dima and his foil Perry are about an inch deep. One is driven by fear for the safety of his family, the other is a decent Englishman. Get past that, and there is not much else going on. The locations - including Morocco, the Swiss Alps, Paris - are nice, though.s

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline 'Psychosexual drama on a grand scale'. Print Edition | Subscribe