Agassi (The Handmaiden)

Cannes 2016: ‘The Handmaiden’ + ‘The BFG’

Fantasy is at the heart of two adaptations of famous books screened at Cannes this week, Steven Spielberg's The BFG and Park Chan-wook’s Agassi (The Handmaiden).

Fantasy is at the heart of two adaptations of famous books screened at Cannes this week. But for this similarity, these two movies could not be more different in subject matters and target audiences. The BFG artfully deploys motion-capture technology to tell the story of a friendship between a giant and an orphan girl. Arriving at the Festival with the expected press frenzy, however, Steven Spielberg’s new film is a disappointment, while Park Chan-wook’s Agassi (The Handmaiden) enchants us by exploring fantasy — the erotic kind — as a historical and fictional sensibility.

Based on Sarah Waters’ 2002 bestselling Sapphic thriller, Fingersmith, Park’s film transports the action from Victorian England to ’30s Japan-occupied Korea. The cinematic version omits some of the novel’s Dickensian plot twists, having to do with hidden parentage, and concentrates on telling an exciting tale of a multilevel confidence game. This tale unfolds in three parts, from three points of view.

It all begins when a pickpocket waif Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) leaves a house where she and a dozen other girls have worked preparing Korean orphans to be sold to Japanese families. This background doesn’t quite prepare her for her next, decidedly convoluted subterfuge. Assuming the position of a maid to the wealthy and unworldly Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), Sookee also works for a swindler who poses as a gentleman, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). He has Sookee spying on Hideko, who is engaged to her reclusive uncle by marriage, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong).

These intricacies only multiply when the Count, invited into the house to forge Kouzuki’s collection of erotic books, schemes to wed the heiress himself, then lock her up an insane asylum so he might steal her fortune. But an attraction between the mistress and the maid complicates this plan.

In this retelling, Waters’ story becomes doubly fascinating, a hybrid like the house where much of the action takes place, a half Japanese, half European mansion in the middle of the woods. The Korean owner of the mysterious house is a sadistic admirer of Japanese culture, especially its erotic literature. In deliberate movements, the camera explores the rooms, the objects, the costumes, and the characters’ gestures, creating a gorgeous and terrifying setting.

A slowly building sense of dread culminates in a maiming scene featuring top-of-the-line bookmaking equipment and also recalls Park’s Oldboy. By contrast, lesbian erotic scenes are enhanced by point-of-view shots. The women’s sexual relationship is initiated in a scene where Hideko, taking a bath, asks Sookee to file down her overly sharp tooth. As the steam rises and Sookee’s finger moves in and out from Hideko’s mouth, the camera wanders from Hideko’s breast to her half-opened lips to her upturned face, acting out Sookee’s desire for her mistress. The camera also catches instances of voyeuristic and vicious male lechery, as a group of gentlemen leers at Hideko, in an elaborate geisha garb, vocally performing her uncle’s texts and at times posing in live tableaus to illustrate what she’s saying.

As Hideko reveals in Part Two, Kouzuki trained her to recite his deviant tomes under the threat of torture, underlining what we’ve already seen, that that women’s mutual tenderness offers a respite from the brutality of men. We understand, then, why Hideko spends more time trying to avoid having sex with men than saving her fortune. By the time the Count takes over the telling of the tale in Part Three, the audience is enchanted both by the visuals and the intrigue.


In a different way, The BFG, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book, also tries to conjure a visual delight for its audience. It brings together live-action humans and animated motion-captured giants in several different scales (the giants refer to the humans as (“human beans”). An orphan girl Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) in an out-of-time London — Victorian gas lights, Depression-era jalopies, and Cold-War-era helicopters all make appearances — meets a “big friendly giant”, or BFG.

Sophie soon discovers that her new buddy is bullied by much bigger and meaner cannibal giants with names like Bloodbottler and Meatdripper. She hatches a plan to ask the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) for help. Here things get hilarious. Computer-engineered Dream Country and Giant Country look much like any enchanted land on-screen, but the BFG’s dinner at the Buckingham palace, with swords for knives and a grand piano as part of a seating arrangement, is fantastic.

Still, apart from that scene, this earnest and saccharine movie avoids humor. Sophie can’t take a step without John Williams’ overwhelming orchestral accompaniment. Her over-explained trajectory follows that of the giants. And after the delightful dinner, the story gets downright grim, as the Queen’s army helicopters perform an extraordinary rendition of the mean giants and confine them to a tropical island where they are supposed to eat prison gruel made exclusively of yucky snozzcumbers, the only vegetable that grows in Giant Country.

The late Melissa Mathison, who wrote the screenplay for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, adapted Dahl’s tale, inviting comparisons between The BFG and the earlier film. But they’re hardly alike. Where E.T. had children and an empathic alien triumph over the paranoid adult authorities, here kids absorb adults’ militarism. Spielberg’s straight telling updates Dahl’s more compellingly ironic approach, such that the baby-eating giant menace, already redolent of the Vietnam War (the ominous helicopter scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now comes to mind).

In the book, the Queen calls the Sultan of Baghdad and the King of Sweden for help. In the movie, it’s “Nancie and Ronnie” Reagan who get the call. And so, with a few geopolitical revisions, Spielberg drafts both Dahl and his characters into a 21st-century coalition of the willing.

The BFG has less in common with E.T. than the first Japanese feature-length animated film in the Classics program at Cannes this year, Momotaro, Umi No Shipei (Momotaro, Sacred Sailors), where bears, rabbits, cats, and mice — representing the Japanese Navy — parachute from planes into the enemy territory to conquer the United States, here represented by an emaciated version of Popeye. Sadly, the paranoid and belligerent adult world of E.T. is still very much with us.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.