The Handmaiden.

A psychological and erotic thriller built around a classic con story, the South Korean film The Handmaiden made a number of critics’ top ten lists for 2016, but wasn’t even submitted by the Korean Film Council for consideration for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film even after the film was generally praised on release at Cannes that year. Directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst), The Handmaiden manages to combine a double-cross story worthy of Hitchcock, a drawing-room mystery worthy of Charlotte Heyer, and erotica worthy of Cinemax into a single, stunningly shot film that still manages to compel even as Park’s train wobbles off the tracks in its final third. It’s free on amazon prime and can be rented via iTunes.

Adapted from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is told in three parts, beginning with the story of Sook-hee, a peasant thief who is recruited by the con artist “Count” Fujiwara to become handmaiden to a wealthy heiress and convince the ingenue to marry the fake count so he can then dump her in an insane asylum and make off with her money. Sook-hee agrees after negotiating a better cut of the proceeds for herself, only to fall in love with her mark, Hideko, and lose her commitment to the con. No one’s motives are truly clear here, and Lady Hideko’s uncle isn’t merely the reclusive rare book collector he appears to be; once the first part of the con is revealed, the narrative shifts back to the beginning and shows much of the same material with missing details restored. Everything you see in part one has a purpose, even if it takes most of the film to discover it.

The con drives the plot, but the power of The Handmaiden resides in the scenery and the lead performances. The film is gorgeously shot, from the uncle’s mansion to the Japanese gardens even to the night scenes among the trees, with Park manipulating light and dark or introducing bursts of color to enact quick shifts in tone. There are very obvious parallels to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and there are scenes in the gardens on the estate where you’d expect to see the girl from Fragonard’s The Swing swaying to and fro.

Kim Tae-ri, making her feature film debut as Sook-hee, nails the urchin’s mixture of overconfidence and naivete, while Ha Jung-woo is perfect as the suave, unctuously charming con man Fujiwara. (The two are both in the upcoming South Korean drama 1987, about the student protests that year that brought down South Korea’s military regime.) Kim Min-hee won several awards for her portrayal of Hideko, perhaps the most thankless role of the three because so much of the script requires her to act numb, although the character gains complexity once the depravity of her uncle becomes apparent in part two; her role just seems less demanding, other than the makeup and hair she’s required to wear while Hideko delivers readings of the books in her uncle’s collection.

The film would almost certainly have received an NC-17 rating here for the two sex scenes between Sook-hee and Hideko, which some critics have tabbed “soft porn” but which would probably escape remark if they involved a hetero pairing. If there’s something objectionable here, it’s the scenes’ length, or some of the dialogue, perhaps badly translated, from Sook-hee that I think was supposed to show that she’s just as naive as Hideko. (Waters herself defended the scenes, saying the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition and that queer audiences welcomed them.) Establishing the attraction between the two women as genuine is critical for the credibility of the overall story, and while the second scene is probably too long by half, skipping them entirely would have left the film worse off. The movie’s conclusion, however, brings the off-screen violence from implication to reality with a needlessly grisly torture scene that would have survived just as well without showing us any severed fingers; I haven’t read the novel but I believe that scene was Park’s invention.

I doubt any film would have topped The Salesman for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, given the political circumstances around the latter’s nomination, but I would rank The Handmaiden above the four other nominees. You can argue it’s pornographic, but I think those scenes are both transgressive and true to the original author’s intent; the violence is far more disturbing and less essential to the plot. And the plot is reason enough to watch the film – it’s an old con done up in a new way, with double dealing and secret schemes, by actors who fully inhabit the devious characters they’re portraying. It’s easily among my top ten movies of last year.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

I’ve had mixed results with Norman Mailer’s work in the past – I loved The Executioner’s Song, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction even though it’s pretty clearly a work of non-fiction, but bailed on The Naked and the Dead after just a handful of pages because of its turgid prose and Dickensian attention to detail. When I read that he’d written a noir-ish detective novel, though, I figured the genre would at least make up for any obstacles I found in his writing, and contemporary reviews of the book, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, were so positive that I gave it a shot. It’s somewhere in the middle for me, overdone as a work of genre fiction, but also, I think, exploring a theme that’s basically absent from the first fifty years or so of hard-boiled detective stories.

Tim Madden is a writer who never seems to write anything, and whose wife has walked out on him, apparently for good this time. Their relationship is built on nothing much at all, but he’s broken up about it, and goes on a bender one night after meeting a couple from California in a bar in his adopted home of Provincetown (a small town at the tip of Cape Cod that, then and now, is known as a gay haven, which turns out to matter substantially in the story). He wakes up the next morning to find he has a tattoo with the name of a woman he doesn’t know, blood all over the inside of his car, and, eventually, a woman’s head in the place where he stashes his marijuana. He’s then left to try to figure out what happened – including who the woman was and whether he killed her – while various people from his past and present show up, including the woman he once dumped for his wife after they went to a swingers’ party, and complicate his efforts to solve the crime.

The novel’s style seems a clear callback to the hard-boiled novels of which I am so fond, although Mailer’s prose is more involved than the clipped tones of Dashiell Hammett or the sparse artistry of Raymond Chandler. It’s almost too well-written for the genre, in that you can tell this is a very good writer trying his hand at an unfamiliar type of writing. Nearly all of the side characters are straight out of central casting – dimwitted hoods, ex-boxers, corrupt cops – but Tim himself is unique, a writer rather than a detective, a child of privilege who got kicked out of Exeter, a former drug dealer who did a stint in prison where he met a former Exeter classmate of his who’ll also figure in the present mystery.

I’m completely interpreting here, but I think Mailer was trying to explore questions of masculinity, especially as it related to homosexuality, something that’s even telegraphed in the novel’s title, which comes from an anecdote within the book where a mobster utters that line, as if dancing would erode his toughness. (It also called to mind the Belle & Sebastian line, “We all know you’re soft/cause we’ve all seen you dancing.”) Most of the male characters in the novel are grappling with maintaining some sort of facade of manliness in the face of emotions that, I think especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, would have marked them as effeminate, if not as “gay” in the pejorative sense of the term. There’s a lot of just plain ol’ fashioned heterosexual depravity in this book, and of course given the time of its writing (published in 1984), there’s quite a bit of homophobic language, including a reference to “Kaposi’s plague,” which refers to a rare cancer that became common among gay men at the time and turned out to be associated with AIDS. But so much of that content read to me like men trying to prove they’re men – I’m not gay, see how I say awful things about gay men, they’re all (bundles of sticks), I’d like to kill them all, etc. The straight men doth protest too much.

And while I doubt “toxic masculinity” was even a term back in the early 1980s – as far as I can tell, it was coined well after the book was written – there’s a huge element of that within the book and behind the crime itself. Without spoiling the whodunit, I’ll say that men trying to either prove their masculinity or suppress characteristics that might be labeled as feminine or gay loom very large within the story, enough that when I finished the book, I found that theme was much more on my mind than the plot itself, which was a little too convoluted, with the murders kind of too pointless for this style of novel. That makes it a cerebral detective story, but maybe not as compelling of a mystery as the classics of the genre are.

Next up: Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo Award-winning novel Spin.

Author: The JT Leroy Story.

I’ll be doing a Facebook Live event on Monday at 11 am ET as part of our buildup to the April 25th release of my book Smart Baseball. I also have a new boardgame review up at Paste, covering the cooperative game for kids Mole Rats in Space, from the designer of Pandemic.

Author: The JT Leroy Story is an unusual documentary because its subject, Laura Albert, recorded many of the phone calls she made during the time period where she was posing as the bestselling author who, it turned out, wasn’t real. Albert herself does most of the talking in the film, which makes it so much more compelling than many documentaries (but raises reasonable questions about the reliability of what we’re hearing), and makes the film’s revelation at the end that much more effective of a stomach-punch and an explanation for so much of what came before. The film was nominated for a Writers’ Guild award for Best Documentary Screenplay and is free on amazon prime.

JT Leroy was a fictional author who wrote real books, an HIV-positive teenager/young adult who had worked as a truck-stop prostitute and been pimped out by his drug-addicted prostitute mother, and who expressed genderfluid feelings before that was part of the common vernacular. He was either the creation of Albert, a woman in her mid-30s at the time of Leroy’s ascension, or a separate ‘avatar’ who expressed himself through her; Albert seems to vacillate between explanations, but is clear that this isn’t dissociative identity disorder, at least. She ‘became’ Leroy to write, and wrote fictional stories about what were supposedly his real-life experiences. Leroy’s first two novels, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, were critically acclaimed and became best-sellers, earning the author a cult following that extended to the celebrity world, only some of whom appear to have been aware that Albert was the actual writer behind the works.

In 2005, a New York article outed Albert as the writer behind Leroy and her sister-in-law as the person acting as Leroy in public, with the New York Times later corroborating the story. Painted as a grand hoax, Albert’s authorship of Leroy’s works doesn’t seem analogous to hoaxers like James Frey or plagiarists like Q.R. Markham; Leroy’s novels were original works of fiction, and never presented to anyone as fact. At most, they were said to be based on fact, or inspired by it, which is false but shouldn’t alter anyone’s perceptions of the quality of the content. (I haven’t read any of Albert’s works under any name and thus have no opinion on whether any of it is good.)

Author attempts to answer two questions about the scandal. One is simply to tell everyone what happened, because the story was major news for a few weeks in 2005-06, and then faded away as such controversies do, especially since in this case the only harm done to anyone was to the film company that eventually sued Albert for fraud. (She signed the option contract as JT Leroy, rather than under her own name.) The documentary gives us the story from Albert’s perspective, punctuated by dozens recordings of phone calls with her publisher, her therapist, her friends, and celebrities who befriended Leroy or Albert (including Billy Corgan and Courtney Love), plus a few others who appear on camera to discuss their roles in helping bring Leroy to the reading public.

The second question is always the toughest for any documentary to answer – the reason(s) why – although in this case, Author at least gives us the central figure’s own explanation with some supporting evidence. The filmmakers here chose to leave the biggest revelation until the end of the film, a gimmick that I found extremely effective, because instead of essentially absolving Albert up front for everything that comes afterwards, Author tells you everything that happened (through Albert’s lens) and then finishes up by giving us a clue on what spark may have started the conflagration.

Author lacks the completeness that a thorough documentary requires; Savannah Knoop, who posed as Leroy in public, appears just once near the end of the film, and Geoff Knoop, Albert’s husband at the time, is nowhere to be found. All we’re getting is Albert’s retelling of the story, in which she takes some responsibility but also depicts herself as someone wronged by media coverage of Leroy as a “hoax” rather than an avatar of a pseudonymous writer. I admit to finding hoaxes fascinating, largely for the motivations of the perpetrators and their general belief that they won’t get caught, and Albert has a reasonable complaint that she’s been treated unfairly. If you thought the novel had literary merit, is that merit diminished at all just because the author wasn’t actually male, young, genderfluid, or HIV-positive?

Of Human Bondage.

Another pretty good deal on Amazon – the complete BBC series Planet Earth: The Complete BBC Series is just $20 on DVD. I’m picking it up as a gift for someone who will probably see this so I’m going to stop talking about it now.

I also answered three questions for Keep Food Legal, the only organization dedicated to fighting for “culinary freedom” in the U.S. Hands off my unpasteurized cheese.

No Klawchat this week.

W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, #66 on the Modern Library 100, is a dense, autobiographical, highly philosophical novel that takes its protagonist, Philip Carey, from the moment he becomes an orphan at age nine through the end of his twenties, during which he tries several careers, loses his faith, and embarks on several ill-fated affairs, including one disastrous obsession that nearly ruins his life. It’s a book I’m glad I read, but will certainly never read again because the slightly awkward prose and the long internal monologues made it an arduous read.

The book opens with the death of Philip’s mother and his removal to the country home of his uncle, a vicar, and submissive aunt, who comes to love him as the son she never had but lacks any authority in her own home. Philip chafes under the restrictions of this life, finding solace by reading the books his uncle owns for show, but finds his life taking a turn for the worse when he’s shipped off to boarding school where his club foot makes him an object for derision and social isolation. After discovering he no longer believes in God (if he ever truly did), he begins a series of misadventures at university and in various careers, including a stint in accounting and an attempt to be a not-starving artist in Paris, before settling into medical school in London. At the same time, he begins an on-again, off-again affair with the unattractive, selfish, manipulative Mildred, who seems to view Philip as a personal ATM, only showing him attention or affection when she needs something from him, popping up in his life when he least needs her all-consuming distractions.

The novel relies heavily on events from Maugham’s own life. Like Philip, Maugham was orphaned before he turned ten, and was raised by a strict, religious uncle and an ineffectual aunt who expected him to take orders after school. He also drifted through several potential careers before studying medicine for five years, during which time he continued to observe people and their emotions and worked on his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, published when he was 23. (By comparison, Philip doesn’t become a writer in Of Human Bondage, and doesn’t complete his medical training until he’s nearly 30.)

Maugham’s prose is choppy and his inconsistent use of cockney spellings, even outside of the dialogue, is a distraction, but he makes up for these deficiencies with strong use of symbolism throughout the novel. Philip’s club foot stands in for Maugham’s own personal shame (at least earlier in his life) at his homosexuality, a theme that pervades the entire novel even though Philip never develops anything stronger than a friendship with any other male character. Philip’s sense that his disability causes his ostracism, leads others to mock or simply underestimate him, and prevents him from living a full life seems to stand in well for the obstacles before a gay man in England in the late 1800s/early 1900s, when any sexual act between two males was illegal and punishable by a prison term. Maugham was in medical school when Oscar Wilde was tried for “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years in prison, which convinced Maugham to keep his own sexuality (he was either gay or bisexual) a secret, both in his private life and in his early writings. Rather than make his protagonist gay, Maugham gave him a physical disability that could cause similar social disadvantages by making him sufficiently different from the rest of the guys.

The “bondage” of the book’s title, taken from a phrase in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics (which, along with Renan’s Vie de Jesus, was a major influence on the personal philosophy of the young Maugham), refers to the multiple societal constraints that appear to limit our ability to find happiness in a life that is, according to Philip, devoid of inherent meaning. The strict religion of the Victorian era and the accompanying moral codes, the expectations a man’s breeding and/or education placed on his career, all of which also limited whom one might choose to love (if one even has such a choice), are bonds Philip must consciously break to find any sort of personal happiness in a universe that will not deliver happiness to him in this life or anything after it. The introductory essay in the edition I read says that many readers found the book’s positive ending jarring or unrealistic, but in my reading, it made perfect sense: Philip casts off all of his bonds and chooses a life he believes will make him happy with a woman well-suited to his temperament, for whom he feels genuine affection (if not actual love). I read this as Maugham’s own private yearning for a world in which he, too, could cast off the societal bonds, and live openly as a gay man. (Maugham had at least two longstanding, not-exactly-secret relationships with men, but passed away two years before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 began the process of decriminalizing “homosexual acts” between consenting adults.)

Philip’s obsession with Mildred provides the narrative greed for most of the middle third of the novel, and I appear to be in good company in finding it inexplicable. She is presented without any redeeming qualities; she is rude, dismissive, haughty, plain, unfeminine, manipulative, and an unloving mother to the child she bore to another man she was sleeping with even as she is coaxing Philip out of some of his money. Philip’s obsession is presented in vivid, realistic terms, but there’s no logic to it at all beyond the possible desire he feels for a woman who won’t have him. He throws another relationship overboard, jeopardizes his career, and loses much of his savings for her, only to have her exact a rather severe punishment on him (albeit one that loosens yet another bond, that of a man to his property) in the end. She could have been just as awful a person, yet depicted as beautiful, and the obsession would have been more believable, yet Philip stands by her despite a lack of physical attraction and even as she openly mocks him by using his money to run off with another man. Is she merely a stand-in for the irrational, emotional impluses which bind us in our daily lives?

That same introductory essay, written by Professor Robert Calder of the University of Saskatchewan, who has written two biographies of Maugham, classifies Of Human Bondage with other autobiographical bildungsromans (coming-of-age novels) of its era, including A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which I found excruciating), Sons and Lovers, and The Way of All Flesh (both on my to-be-read shelf). It’s a highly introspective, emotional style of novel, with long digressions on the author’s own psychological and philosophical development, and attempts to explain how external forces (people and events) shaped that development. As someone who reads for plot over all other elements, it’s never going to be my favorite subgenre, and Of Human Bondage didn’t offer me great prose or highly compelling characters to balance out that weakness.

Odd fact: One of Maugham’s great-grandsons, Derek Pavancini, is a blind, autistic savant pianist.

Next up: James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss.


John Cheever’s Falconer, another book from the TIME 100*, made little sense to me as anything more than a superficial story of a man in prison until I read a little of Cheever’s biography. If you know two basic things about the author, the novel takes on significantly greater meaning: Cheever was bisexual and struggled to come to terms with this, and he was a lifelong alcoholic, which was probably tied to the first fact. After learning those details of Cheever’s life, I found more meaning Falconer as a story of self-acceptance and recovery.

*This is the 80th book I’ve read on the TIME list, and 90 seems well within reach, but I can already tell you those last five will be a bear, if I even choose to tackle them: Infinite Jest, An American Tragedy, White Noise, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Recognitions. That’s about 4700 pages across five novels, and three of them have reputations as difficult reads. Ninety-five sounds like a lovely number, don’t you think?

The main character, Farragut, is a husband and father and has more or less had a successful career despite a heroin addiction dating back to his service in World War II, where he became hooked on morphine. For reasons not explained until near the end of the book, Farragut kills his brother, after which he’s sentenced to prison. His marriage, not strong before the murder, falls apart; his dependence on methadone becomes central to his daily life; and, even though he’s “not queer,” he has an affair with a fellow inmate. Although Cheever surrounds Farragut with a cast of wackos in his cell block, the story is entirely about Farragut and his struggle to maintain – or discover – his humanity in jail.

The prison of the book and Farragut’s gradual recovery from addiction and acceptance of his own character seem to be a metaphor for Cheever’s own life, where he struggled to accept his own bisexuality and promiscuity and drowned himself in alcohol, an addiction he apparently kicked around the time he wrote Falconer. Early in his confinement, Farragut is briefly denied his daily methadone dose and ends up suffering withdrawal symptoms, after which he pens three letters, one to the governor, one to his bishop, and one to his wife; armed with the knowledge of Cheever’s troubles, I read those letters as Cheever’s own rebellion against the authority figures in his life and prevented him or pressured him to keep his sexual orientation a secret and to feel shame for it, or just his awakening to the possibilities of a life outside of the oppression of those authority figures. Farragut’s eventual acceptance of himself is neither easy nor predictable, and in some ways it’s incomplete, but that made the book seem more real by giving Farragut antiheroic qualities.

The book is short and moves along quickly between Cheever’s prose and, outside of those three letters, little introspective text. It also moved quickly for me because, once Farragut is settled in prison, Cheever devotes a lot of ink to his main character’s sex life in prison, and I found those sections a lot easier to read if I just didn’t read them at all. The man was clearly obsessed with his own peter; perhaps there’s some Freudian analysis to be made there, but having never read Freud I saw no value in those details.

Next up: I’m still a bit behind, having just finished F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second short story collection, Tales From The Jazz Age, this morning.

The Counterfeiters.

I can’t say that I fully got the point of André Gide’s The Counterfeiters (#60, Novel 100). It’s interesting in a way as an early attempt at what we would now call metafiction, with mentions of a novel within the novel, and with the fictional author’s journals providing large chunks of the real novel’s narrative. But the story itself never grabbed me.

The novel’s overarching theme seems to be the decline of morality in post-World War I France, although how Gide could kvetch about morality is beyond me. The story lacks a single focus – Gide himself said his story was more like an ellipse, with two foci, than a circle with a single center – but generally revolves around Bernard Profitendieu, the illegitimate son of a judge who sets off on a search for identity, and Edouard, the frustrated novelist inside the book who ends up connected with Bernard through his own nephew Olivier, and who opens the door into a second plot revolving around a depressed old man who wants his grandson retrieved from his home in Poland. Neither of the storylines is particularly interesting, and the most interesting one, around the dissolute young boys who pass counterfeit coins (giving the novel its title), is given very short shrift until a sudden climax at the novel’s very end.

One thing that kept occurring to me is that Gide, generally classified as a homosexual but perhaps better described as a pederast, had little grasp of adult romantic relationships, especially those between men and women. Nearly every interaction among the various heterosexual couples or pairs in the book rang false for me, while the allusions to gay couplings mostly went over my head, except for the few times Edouard was a little less coy about his liaisons. Gide’s discomfort or unfamiliarity with normal adult relations kept me at arm’s length from most of the plot.

I also found some of the translations to be odd, resulting in awkward English phrasings that probably don’t reflect the actual tone of the French original.

Anyway, more comment seems superfluous since I didn’t care for the book and it doesn’t seem to be a commonly-read tome. Next up: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies . And yes, after that, Pale Fire.