Swampflix’s Top Films of 2016

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1. The Witch – A cinematic masterpiece from the first frame to the last, The Witch at once acts like a newly-discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, a “Hansel & Gretel” type fairy tale about the dangers of the wild, a slice of Satanic panic folklore, and an impressively well-researched historical account of witchcraft unmatched in its eerie beauty since at least as far back as 1922’s Häxan. Despite its historical nature and Puritan setting, this film will make your skin crawl with dread. Each captured moment is elegant and haunting, transporting the audience back to the 17th Century and tempting those along for the ride to question their sanity. The Witch is a true New England American Gothic piece. It sidesteps the mushy romances and familial dramas typically set in New England, one of the most beautiful areas of the country, in favor of a spine-chilling Satanic tale that features dense layers of historical & moral subtext, an amazing soundtrack of ominous ambient sounds, and a breakout star in its scene-stealing goat, the almighty Black Phillip. It’s not the usual terror-based entertainment you’d pull from more typical horror works about haunted houses or crazed killers who can’t be stopped, but even as a beautiful, slow-building art film & a mood piece it just might be the spookiest movie of 2016.

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2. 10 Cloverfield Lane – Far better than it has any right to be, this sequel in-name-only combines elements of horror, sci-fi, and the supernatural thriller to craft an intimate, difficult-to-categorize indictment of doomsday prepper culture. In a year that saw an excess of great confined-space thrillers (Green RoomDon’t BreatheEmelie, Hush, The ShallowsThe Invitation) 10 Cloverfield Lane stands above the rest by locking its audience in the basement with a small cast of fearful apocalypse survivors and a complexly monstrous John Goodman. Relentlessly & intoxicatingly tense, this Louisiana-set woman-in-captivity horror will rattle you in a way that its 2008 found footage predecessor never even approached. It will disturb you, surprise you, and confirm your deepest fears about “survival” nuts’ ugly thirst for post-apocalyptic power grabs, largely thanks to a career-altering performance from someone we formerly knew as the cool dad from Roseanne.

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3. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – The pop music version of This Is Spinal Tap, Andy Samberg’s greatest achievement to date thoroughly skewers the totality of hedonistic excess & outsized hubris on the modern pop music landscape. In a larger sense, it also functions as an incisive & withering dissection of the dreamy pop culture star-making machine as the industrial complex that it really is. Popstar can be easily dismissed as a profoundly stupid film. In its smaller moments, it often delivers the quintessential mindless humor we all need to endure this increasingly shitty life & its throwaway consumer culture. There’s legitimate criticism lurking under its frivolously parodic mockumentary surface, though. Popstar smartly & lovingly dismantles the entirety of pop’s current state of ridiculousness, from EDM DJ laziness to Macklemore’s no-homo “activism” to the meaninglessness of hip-hop that apotheosizes empty materialism to the industry’s creepy fetishization of military action & nationalism. Do yourself a favor and at least download the song “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” to sample the film’s well-calibrated sense of pointed, yet absurd satirical humor.

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4. The Boy – There’s really no pleasure quite like a campy horror movie about a haunted evil doll. Not every scary movie is (or ought to be) the next big thing in horror, and The Boy is fairly run of the mill in its light supernatural tomfoolery. That is, until a sharp left turn in its third act completely obliterates its more generic psychological/supernatural slowburn to delve into some utterly bonkers motherfuckery that should be a crowdpleaser among all schlock junkies looking for entertainment in pure novelty. The Boy delivers both the genuinely creepy chills and the over-the-top camp that we crave in our horror flicks, ultimately feeling like two memorable genre pictures for the price of one. In its own goofy way, it completely upends what we’ve come to expect from the modern PG-13 evil doll movie as a genre in recent years, offering a surprise breath of fresh air in its last minute deviation from the norm.

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5. Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday – Our favorite Netflix Original in a year that saw many, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is essentially Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on a Big Top Pee-wee scale & budget, which is all that Pee-Wee Herman fans could really ask for in a direct-to-streaming release after a 30 year gap. Following a giant Rube Goldberg device of a plot, with each chain reaction proving to be just as kooky (or even kookier) than the last, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’s most immediately endearing aspect might be the love story of the year: a steamy bromance between Pee-wee Herman and Joe Manganiello (who are both billed as playing themselves). Manganiello enters the scene as a living embodiment of a Tom of Finland drawing on a motorcycle and the queer subtext certainly doesn’t end there, eventually blossoming into a really sweet, very romantic story about two souls who just can’t get enough of each other. We can’t get enough of those two either. In fact, we’re ready for a sequel!

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6. Tale of TalesIn a world full of fairy tale media (Once Upon a Time, Disney Princess movies, live action remakes of Disney Princess movies, etc), it’s a curious thing that more keeps getting made, and that so much of it is adapted from the same tales we already know. Adapted instead from the more rarely-seen source of 17th century Italian fairy tales that fell into obscurity, Tale of Tales is narratively unique, visually striking, morbidly funny, brutally cold: everything you could ask for from a not-all-fairy-tales-are-for-children corrective. The film fearlessly alternates between the grotesque & the beautiful, the darkly funny & the cruelly tragic. Its cinematography as well as its set & costume design will make you wonder how something so delicately pretty can be so willing to get so spiritually ugly at the drop of a hat (or a sea beast’s heart). There is no Disney-brand fantasy to be found here, only black magic, witches, ogres, and giant insects, each waiting to stab you in the back with a harsh life lesson about the dangers & evils of self-absorption once you let your guard down in a dreamlike stupor.

7. Kubo and the Two StringsThe latest masterful offering from the stop-motion animation marvels Laika is pure, gorgeous art. The puppetry is incredible, an overwhelming triumph in Laika’s continued attention to detail in visual & narrative craft. At heart a story about the power of storytelling & the ways memory functions like potent magic, Kubo and the Two Stings finds inspiration in Japanese folklore & the rich cinematic past of samurai epics to craft an immense visual spectacle and to explore dramatic themes of past trauma & familial loss. This allows for a darkness & a danger sometimes missing in the modern kids’ picture, but what Laika most deserves bragging rights for is the mind-boggling way they pulled off this awe-inspiringly beautiful innovation in the moving image, the most basic aspect of filmmaking.

8. Hail, Caesar! Would that it were so simple to sum up this movie’s charms. A smart, star-studded, intricately-plotted, politically & theologically thoughtful, genuinely hilarious, and strikingly gorgeous movie about The Movies, Hail, Caesar! might be one of the Coen Brothers’ strongest works to date. Much like with Barton Fink, the Coens look back to the Old Hollywood studio system in Hail, Caesar! as a gateway into discussing the nature of what they do for living as well as the nature of Nature at large. In the process, they perfectly capture Old Hollywood’s ghost. There’s the hyperbolic threat of Communism, ancient Hollywood scandals, endlessly moody directors, a musical number featuring a tap-dancing Channing Tatum and, behind it all, an unsung hero just trying to hold everything together off-camera. Hail, Caesar! is not only worthwhile for being loaded with its stunningly beautiful tributes to Old Hollywood, however; it’s also pretty damn hilarious in a subtle, quirky way that’s becoming a rare treat on the modern comedy landscape.

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9. Midnight SpecialFocused more on mood than worldbuilding, Jeff Nichols’s sci-fi chase epic mirrors the best eras of genre cinema giants Steven Spieldberg & John Carpenter. Midnight Special is surprisingly accessible for an original sci-fi property, never getting wrapped up in the complex terminologies and detached-from-reality scenarios that often alienate audiences in the genre. This may be the Nichols’s most ambitious work to date in terms of scale, but he’s smart to keep the individual parts that carry the hefty, supernatural mystery of its narrative just as small & intimate as he has in past familial dramas like Mud & Shotgun Stories. You never lose sight that these are real people struggling with an unreal situation. And, if nothing else, a world-weary Michael Shannon’s studied command of his role as the father of a child with godlike, unexplainable powers is something truly special, a grounded, believable performance that everyone should witness at least once.

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10. Hunt for the WilderpeopleThe story of a young boy going on the lam in the New Zealand bush with his reluctantly adoptive uncle after a devastating tragedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople very nearly tops Boy for Taika Waititi’s best feature to date, mixing small, endearing character beats with the large scale spectacle of a big budget action comedy. We all need a good laugh this year; we also need a good cry. Fortunately, Wilderpeople has both! It’s funny, cute, and even twee in a way that sometimes resembles a Wes Anderson movie, but there’s also a certain darkness to the film that doesn’t shy away from real life consequences or scathing political satire. Many people have rightly latched onto this adventure epic as one of the most consistently funny comedies of recent memory (with a surprisingly gruff comedic turn from Sam Neill registering as especially cherishable), but there’s so much more going on in the film than a mere assemblage of a long string of jokes.

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Honorable Mentions – Here are a few films we loved that just missed our collective Best Of list: The HandmaidenMoonlightArrivalShin Godzilla, Ghostbusters, and Keanu. They may not have made our Top Ten, but they’re each worthy of praise & attention in their own various ways.

Read Alli’s picks here.
Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Alli’s Top Films of 2016

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1. The Handmaiden – Park Chan-wook has a way of crafting gorgeous Victorian-inspired scenery and making it work even if the setting (in this case, The Japanese Occupation of Korea) doesn’t necessarily call for it. I say “Victorian-inspired” because of the film’s occasional frilly costuming and elaborate, lushly decorated sets, but The Handmaiden is definitely sexy enough to make any room full of self-respecting Victorians faint. It’s such a lovely erotic thriller. Like any of Park Chan-Wook’s other films, it also gets gritty and brutal, but despite the tension and brutality, it’s my favorite love story of the year.

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2. The WitchThe Witch follows in the footsteps of Häxan and presents a more historical account of witchcraft. Despite its historical nature and Puritan setting, the film will make your skin crawl with atmospheric dread. It is beautiful and dark; and, like with every great horror movie, its soundtrack is amazing, just teeming with ominous ambient sounds. Also, how many movies have a goat as the star??? Black Phillip is the king of everything.

3. MoonlightMoonlight is a lovely deconstruction of the hazards of toxic masculinity, homophobia, and the war on drugs. I can’t begin to say how important this movie is. It comes at a time when tensions in our country are high, and people are actually fighting to be able to discriminate against other people. To have a film like this right now, showing us how damaging these attitudes are, is vital. It helps that Moonlight is so good. It has such a tender earnestness in how it approaches the subject, and the way it’s told in three parts gives it a poetic rhythm.

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4. Ghostbusters – This movie was so much funnier than I expected. I think I was predisposed to like it anyway, because it made a bunch of man-children angry, but all the jokes landed and it captures just enough of the original film’s spirit while also having its own liveliness.  The cast really picked up the torch and ran with it. In particular, it was really great to see a lighter side of Chris Hemsworth that isn’t just his culture-shocked Thor act. I’m so glad that this movie didn’t just function as another unnecessary reboot.

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5. Hunt for the Wilderpeople – I think we all need a good laugh this year, but we also need a good cry. Fortunately, Wilderpeople has both!  This is the story of a boy going on the lam in the New Zealand bush with his reluctantly adoptive uncle after a devastating tragedy. Though it’s funny and cute, even twee in a way that resembles a Wes Anderson movie, there’s a certain darkness to it. It doesn’t shy away from real life consequences or scathing political satire.

6. Kubo and the Two Strings – This movie is pure, gorgeous art. The puppetry is incredible. The first time the origami flittered and moved, I just teared up at how wonderful it looked. I’m not even sure how they pulled this stuff off. Laika has done it again, and they deserve all the bragging rights.

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7. Tale of Tales – In a world full of fairy tale related media (Once Upon a Time, Disney Princess movies, live action remakes of Disney Princess movies, etc), it’s a curious thing that more keeps getting made, and that so much of it is adapted from the same tales we already know. Adapted from a book of 17th century Italian fairy tales that fell into obscurity, Tale of Tales weaves together many stories which, while very old, feel very new. There is no Disney here. The stories told are everything fairy tales should be: strange, eerie, brutal, gory, and beautiful.

8. Hail, Caesar! – Would that it were so simple to sum up this movie’s charms. It’s such a fun parody of McCarthy-era Hollywood. There’s the hyperbolized threat of Communism, old Hollywood scandals, moody directors, a musical dance number with Channing Tatum tap dancing and singing about gams, and the one guy in the background who’s just trying to hold it all together. On top of all of that is the Coen Brothers’ ability to assemble an amazing cast. I think Hail, Caesar! might just be one of their strongest works.

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9. Shin Godzilla – It’s very difficult for a franchise this old and with so many titles to it to offer a new take on the tale, but Shin Godzilla really pulls it off. Instead of a story about a giant lizard terrorizing Tokyo, it’s a deconstruction of Japanese bureaucracy and foreign policy with a giant hideous monster destroying Tokyo in the background. It’s In the Loop meets Kaiju and just about as strange and wonderful as you’d expect from that combo.

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10. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday – If The Handmaiden was my favorite love story of the year, the bromance between Pee-wee Herman and Joe Manganiello might be my second favorite. Just like any Pee-wee movie, it’s just a giant Rube Goldberg device of a plot, with each chain reaction being just as kooky or even kookier than the last.

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11. Into the Inferno – Herzog and his vulcanologist friend Clive Oppenheimer nerd out about volcanoes for an hour and forty five minutes. It’s a dream come true.  Part anthropological exploration, part nature documentary, Into the Inferno is gorgeous and enlightening.

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12. Rogue One – How political can a Star Wars movie get while the producers vehemently deny it? Very. Rogue One is about the rebel group who smuggled the Death Star blueprints. Somehow, it manages to take a 40 year old franchise and frame it in such a newly dark light. Also, despite the all haters, I thought that CGI Peter Cushing was very impressive.

-Alli Hobbs

The Best of NOFF 2016 Ranked & Reviewed

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It already felt a little odd last year to post my Belated NOFF 2015 Report a whole month after the festival had concluded. Having attended more than twice the amount of films I caught at last year’s New Orleans Film Fest this time around, it took me even longer to publish a review for everything I saw. Here we are almost two months since the fest had passed and I’m finally gathering all of those titles in one spot. This better late than never round-up is going to be a little more bare bones & listicle-esque than last year’s, since there isn’t much of a worthwhile story to tell about how I caught this year’s screenings. CC & I recorded a more fleshed out recap of our festival experience on Episode #17 of the podcast in case you’re interested in hearing about the weird goings-on at the NOFF headquarters of the Ace Hotel or the surreal experience of watching a grotesque body horror screened at the mostly empty Aquarium IMAX theater. This list is more of a simplistic ranking of the titles I managed to catch at this year’s festival than that kind of a review.

Here’s a ranking of every film I’ve seen that screened at the New Orleans Film Fest in 2016. Each title includes a link to a corresponding review. I obviously did not have the opportunity to see everything that interested me at the festival (missing out on Manchester by the Sea, Contemporary Color, and Hara Kiri were particular disappointments). I also had to catch up with a couple titles after the fact, specifically Moonlight & Daughters of the Dust, due to scheduling conflicts. Again, there’s more context for these kinds of programming notes in our podcast episode on the festival. However, I do think it’s worth mentioning here that although (the strangely wonderful & sadly underrated) Girl Asleep was scheduled to screen at NOFF, it was pulled at the last minute and that, with the exception of White Girl, I enjoyed everything I managed to see to varying degrees, which made for an overall positive festival experience. Without further ado, here’s everything I watched at the 27th annual New Orleans Film Fest ranked & reviewed.

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1. Multiple Maniacs – “It’s impossible to divorce the context from the content in this case, because John Waters is such a highly specific stylist & works so closely with a steady cast of nontraditional ‘actors,’ but even if the director had never made another feature in his life I believe the world would still be talking about Multiple Maniacs all these decades later. Horror films this weird & this grotesquely fun are rarely left behind or forgotten and, given the devotion of Waters’s more dedicated fans, I’m honestly surprised it took this long for this one to get its proper due.”

2. Moonlight (winner of the NOFF Audience Award for Spotlight Film: Narrative) – “In Moonlight, Barry Jenkins somehow, miraculously finds a way to make a meditation on self-conflict, abuse, loneliness, addiction, and homophobic violence feel like a spiritual revelation, a cathartic release. So much of this hinges on visual abstraction. We sink into Chiron’s dreams. We share in his romantic gaze. Time & sound fall out of sync when life hits him like a ton of bricks, whether positively or negatively.”

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3. The Handmaiden – “As a lesbian erotic thriller with meticulous dedication to craft & a Tarantino-esque celebration of crime & revenge narratives, the film plays like an unholy combination of the flashier aspects of Bound & The Duke of Burgundy, if you could believe such a thing was possible. It’s a gleefully tawdry art piece that takes great delight in its own narrative cleverness, but also constructs a strong enough visual foundation for its flashy storytelling style to shine instead of annoy. If The Handmaiden were a little uglier or if its bigger reveals were held until its final moments, its tonal balancing act might have crumbled disastrously. As is, it’s too fun & too beautiful to resist.”

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4. Are We Not Cats? – “For all its dirty Detroit soul & doom metal sound cues, colorful Quintron-esque musical contraptions, and horrific flashes of skincrawl gore, Are We Not Cats is a film ultimately about intimacy & mutual addiction. As memorable as its grotesque, psychedelic freak-outs can be, their impact is equaled if not bested by the tender melancholy of lines like ‘When was the last memory you have of not being truly alone?’ The details of the romance that ends that loneliness construct a body horror nightmare of open sores & swallowed hair, but still play as oddly sweet in a minor, intimate way that underlines the film’s viscerally memorable strengths & forgives a lot of its more overly-familiar narrative impulses.”

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5. Cheerleader – “Cheerleader is a surprisingly dark comedy that repurposes the subversive bubblegum pop of 90s teen movies for a quietly surreal fantasy piece. The film exists in a cartoon reality of its own outside time & logic and uses familiar teen comedy beats to establish a darkly surreal mood and a tender mode of complete emotional devastation. It’s subtly brilliant, quietly intricate, and deserves the mass attention of wide distribution, especially considering the way it evokes an era of currently bankable nostalgia by reimagining instead of merely mimicking.”

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6. Ovarian Psycos – “There’s a lesson to be learned in the way Ovarian Psycos broadcasts its profile of the titular feminist biking crew without pushing for disingenuous story beats. It may open itself to accusations of being narratively slight or thematically thin, but the truth is witnessing this group of women simply existing out there in the world is more than enough to justify the film’s existence. Anything more would be dishonest.”

7. Daughters of the Dust – “Julie Dash’s film is a sometimes impenetrable, but often beautiful evocation of a mood & a spirit. It may first appear from the outside to be a historical work about the Gullah people on the precipice of the modern world, but Daughters of the Dust strives to be something much grander & harder to pinpoint than that reductive description suggests and it’s near-impossible not to admire the film’s ambitions even when its individual moments aren’t wholly successful.”

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8. My First Kiss and the People Involved (winner of the NOFF Audience Award for Narrative Feature) – “My First Kiss and the People Involved traffics in the standard indie drama empathy inherent to small scale films about systemic mental health care. However, it also mirrors the helplessness & delusion of its disenfranchised subjects by veering into the unexpected territory of a psychological horror. At times, the film’s tense paranoia & dread of sudden violence plays like the silent horror classic A Page of Madness by way of a classic Hitchcock thriller, which is not at all the expectation or precedent it sets in its more tender, but familiar first act.”

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9. Check It– “Check It works best when it shows the kids chowing on fast food, discussing their Instagram aesthetics, and listening to artists like Cakes da Killa or Dominique Young Unique. It loses a little credibility in its celebratory air when it asks queer kids to change themselves to survive, especially since they had managed to survive on their own despite the overwhelming odds for long enough to make a name for themselves and attract this attention in the first place. If they ever find a way to inspire internal inspiration for change & progress within their own ranks they’ll be unstoppable. It’ll also make for a much less compromised documentary.”

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10. White Girl – “White Girl wants to indulge in the sex & drugs & rock n’ roll lifestyle for easy hedonism, condemn the audience for leering along with it, make a point about white women using POC neighborhoods as consequence-free playgrounds, and then use POC narratives as consequence-free playgrounds. In so many ways the film participates in the very same entitlement it aims to indict.”

-Brandon Ledet

The Handmaiden (2016)

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fourstar

I’m typically not a huge fan of twisty shenanigans in my movie plots, but director Park Chan-wook’s latest is a testament to the virtues of The Major Plot Twist as a storytelling device. The Handmaiden is a deliberately twisty crime story in which the audience is continually conned into believing half-truths depending on the minute-to-minute revelations of its various narrators, anxiously awaiting the next rug pull to knock us on our ass. As a lesbian erotic thriller with meticulous dedication to craft & a Tarantino-esque celebration of crime & revenge narratives, the film plays like an unholy combination of the flashier aspects of BoundThe Duke of Burgundy, if you could believe such a thing was possible. It’s a gleefully tawdry art piece that takes great delight in its own narrative cleverness, but also constructs a strong enough visual foundation for its flashy storytelling style to shine instead of annoy. If The Handmaiden were a little uglier or if its bigger reveals were held until its final moments, its tonal balancing act might have crumbled disastrously. As is, it’s too fun & too beautiful to resist.

A petty criminal brings in an even pettier cohort for a conspiracy plot to gaslight a young heiress & rob her of her dowry once she’s declared insane. The young, naïve forger finds it increasingly difficult to live a lie as the heiress’s dutiful handmaiden as she finds herself falling unexpectedly in love with her would-be victim. The love is quickly revealed to be mutual and the film deals in largely the same unspoken, but physically expressed homosexual desire as Carol . . . until it culminates in an explicit, laugh-heavy sex scene (or three). Once their mutual desire is solidified & consummated the question is how much further the handmaiden is willing to deceive & exploit her lady. That is, until Park starts to have fun in deceiving & exploiting his own audience. There’s a near-endless sea of complex relationships, past abuses, planned double-crossings, and unthinkable depths of greed that Park plays close to the chest until he can use them to prank & subvert audience expectation. It isn’t a storytelling style I usually care for, considering how much attention it calls to its own cleverness, but The Handmaiden is so lovingly constructed & visually detailed that my personal apprehension with its tone means nothing. It also helps that the film often plays like a comedy, one where the humor lands consistently & sometimes even tenderly.

The Handmaiden is above all else a film about forgery. Its characters forge expensive books & jewelry, along with entire identities. The central conman forges a life where he can pose as nobility despite his empty bank account & lowly beginnings. The lady’s uncle/Master forges himself a new national identity, forsaking his Korean heritage for a false air of Japanese superiority, complete with a vast collection of his adopted country’s erotica & a particular obsession with the infamous octopus sex print The Tale of the Fisherman’s Wife. Most importantly, though, the film tackles the idea of forged desire. It pits the real-life sexual attraction between the lady & her handmaiden against the forgeries of the predatory masculine seduction forced by the conman & the hideously cruel uncle, making almost a divine object out of the genuine thing. In his own way, Park himself also deals in a kind of forgery – intentionally selling the audience a fake version of his own story before slowly revealing the genuine version of the real thing. He was smart to marry that storytelling deceit with the consistent theme of deceit in the film’s content; it works both as an acknowledgement & as a mission statement.

A lot of the fun of The Handmaiden is in trying to get a firm hand on the film’s tone. Depending on what moment you’re watching, it can play as a myriad of different genres: a farce, a revenge thriller, a ghost story, intense erotica, literal gallows humor, etc. Park Chan-wook is playful & adventurous in the way he navigates these moods, but he anchors the film to a solid foundation of highly specific, meticulously crafted imagery. A cherry blossom tree, an octopus, a coiled rope, an ink-stained tongue; The Handmaiden is first & foremost an achievement in intense costume & sent design, which allows for plenty of room in its narrative sprawl for twist-heavy shenanigans. I don’t think it’s quite the exquisite art piece of the similarly twisty & playfully erotic The Duke of Burgundy, but the film also gives no implication that it’s aiming for that work’s quiet emotional impact. It mostly aims to have fun with its narrative & its audience and by that measurement it’s a major success.

-Brandon Ledet