Min-hee Kim and Jung-woo Ha in The Handmaiden
I guess it’s probably pretty strange to travel out of town for a film festival and spend one of the nine days you’re there seeing precisely zero films. The truth is, the only way I could’ve seen films yesterday was through the power of teleportation — I spent most of the day waiting around to do interviews, a process so often beset with delays that you often find yourself with an unplanned movie-sized gap that you can’t fill.
Technically, I could’ve seen a movie last night; I lined up for last-minute tickets to see indie stalwart Onur Tukel’s latest (and biggest), the black comedy Cat Fight. Despite the fact that this was the film’s second screening of the fest, it was sold out. That’s the kind of thing that would only happen at a festival of Toronto’s scope. While not a judgment call on the film’s quality (I haven’t seen it, after all), the fact that people lined up excitedly (and paid somewhat considerable festival prices) to see a bizarre, pitch-black comedy starring Anne Heche and Sandra Oh feels like a joyful anomaly.
Those hoping for Park Chan-Wook’s return to ultra-violent genre films after the tepid Stoker should probably take a number. His latest is an epic erotic melodrama that skews closer to something like a soapy In the Realm of the Senses than Oldboy. Chan-Wook’s always had a flair for the overheated, but he indulges deeply with this story of a young grifter who poses as a wealthy woman’s handmaiden in order to secure the path for her partner to pilfer her fortune. There’s more going on, of course, than meets the eye in what has to be one of the twistiest, most unwieldy scripts of the year.
Chan-Wook weaves a complex and fascinating story, but the film’s structure is trying. It’s set up in three acts, and the second act is essentially a repeat of the first from another character’s perspective. It’s a classic storytelling trope, but it means that we have to essentially sit through everything we’ve already seen prior with extra twists, making the film’s middle portion unnecessarily laborious viewing. It’s deliciously twisted as far as overheated melodrama goes, though.
The Handmaiden is slated for a Montreal release on Oct. 28.
Inma Cuesta and Adriana Ugarte in Julieta
Although his work has mostly moved from the bawdy, anarchic comedy of his earlier films to more measured (though still outsized in many respects) melodrama, Pedro Almodóvar has the luxury of having a style so distinctive that it almost trumps quality. It’s impossible not to recognize an Almodóvar movie, and thus Julieta has the strength of familiarity on its side. If you like Almodóvar, generally speaking, you’ll like any and all Almodóvars on some level, but this adaptation of a trio of Alice Munro short stories is hampered considerably by the director’s overly unwieldy storytelling structure.
The film tells the story of the eponymous Julieta (played by Adriana Ugarte as a younger woman and by Emma Suarez in the present day) as she writes a long, life-explaining letter to her daughter. Julieta has chosen not to follow her new lover in a move to Portugal for reasons she eventually makes clear, outlining how she met her daughter’s father, her daughter’s upbringing and her life in Madrid.
It’s not necessarily a complicated story, but Almodóvar seems to have a lot of affection for mystery these days, spooling out the story in a manner that utilizes epistolary exposition, flashbacks and judiciously withheld truths that come out at just the right time (Broken Embraces suffered from much the same thing — characters launching into half-hour “there are lots of things I haven’t told you” spiels). It’s a serpentine murder-mystery structure applied to what should essentially work better as a low-key drama. While Almodovar’s trademark colourful visuals and strong central performances are definitely found here, it’s not nearly as affecting as his best work as it spends so much time spinning its wheels. ■
Julieta is slated for a release later this year.
TIFF continues through Sept. 18. See regular reports at cultmontreal.com.