With one perfect sweeping shot early on in The Handmaiden’s first act, Park Chan-Wook nearly gives away the game. Masquerading as a maid, Korean con-artist Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is given a tour of the mansion of her mark Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). The camera glides past Sook-hee and through the mansion, a lush mash-up of sliding Japanese fusama and Victorian English architecture; a beautiful façade obscuring the hidden compartments and secrets that lie within the house. Park, adapting from Sarah Water’s crime novel Fingersmith, swaps out the Victorian setting for 1930s Japan-occupied Korea. What should have been a straightforward ploy to steal away an heiress’ fortune is muddled by Sook-hee’s growing attraction to her eccentric mistress.
The real sleight-of-hand is on the viewer, constantly shifting our (and the characters’) loyalties throughout this triptych masterpiece of bawdy brilliance. Like the sliding doors of the grand house, The Handmaiden is a breathless series of reveals and sudden reversals, Lines of dialogue thought to be sincere are exposed as misdirection. Fleeting glances between characters turn out to be pregnant with meaning. While uncovering the film’s many mysteries is deeply pleasurable, its complexities are enriched by repeat viewings.
Whatever you make of Park’s newfound allegiance to feminism, The Handmaiden is unassailably a film aligned with female desire. As for the improbability of the film’s much-remarked-upon depiction of graphic lesbian sex acts as directed by a male filmmaker, I’d say that’s entirely the point. Aside from fitting comfortably within Park’s usual colorful, over-the-top tone, The Handmaiden explicitly broaches the subject of erotic fiction, simultaneously skewering and delighting in overwrought purple prose detailing anatomically impossible feats of orgasmic bliss. In a film filled with narrative twists, the best of all comes when its female leads appropriate similarly unrealistic acts, originally intended to titillate male spectators, to fit their newly discovered queer desire.
Which isn’t to say it’s not titillating. However, the pleasure comes not from merely objectifying Sook-hee and Hideko’s bodies, but from identifying with their subjectivity. When the tension breaks, and their often contradictory points-of-view finally come together, it is genuinely thrilling. Any charge that the climactic sex scene is too aesthetically pleasing or too geared towards the “male gaze” should be laid to rest by the brief intimate encounter of the dénouement—it’s a deliberately strange, vaguely alienating moment, yet one completely rapt in the obvious pleasure being had by its female lovers. In other words, it is feminist as fuck.
Like The Handmaiden’s sweeping camera, the opening minutes of Tampopo clue us in on how best to devour it: An aged ramen-eating master sits next to his rapt pupil before steaming bowls of the savory soup. “First, observe the whole bowl. Appreciate its gestalt,” he instructs with utmost seriousness. Then, there’s a solemn acknowledgement of the individual ingredients and the important part each plays in the making of the whole. And once the proper respect has been paid to the dish and its parts, slurp up the noodles—noisily, messily, with complete abandon.
Thanks to the efforts of Janus, Juzo Itami’s deliciously funny 1986 food comedy is returning to screens in New York and Los Angeles in newly restored 4K starting this weekend. At the heart of the feast is the Western-inflected story of Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), the widowed ramen-shop owner who calls upon a pair of truck driving drifters-cum-ramen-enthusiasts—Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his trusty sidekick Gun (Ken Watanabe)—to rehabilitate her floundering restaurant into a neighborhood hot spot. Goro’s approach is like that of the old master, breaking down and examining the components that make noodles great, like a ramen-shop procedural digging into the details of broth-making, proper noodle consistency, and pork-slicing technique. An inspired bit has Goro putting Tampopo through her paces in a Rocky-esque training montage, with one-armed push-ups and bag punching replaced with noodle draining drills and lifting heavy cookware from burner-to-burner.
But the true mad brilliance of Tampopo comes from its other component parts. Constructed around the ramen shop story are a series of vignettes focused on acts of cooking, consuming and copulating with food (while The Handmaiden’s Sapphic scissoring may inspire disbelief, a woman coming to an orgasm by biting into a raw egg yolk in Tampopo is simply inspired). Food consumption is a cultural act bound by social strictures, but it is also sensual, messy, and bodily. Its very essence disrupts the politesse meant to contain it, which the film relishes in nearly every sequence. The sumptuous food photography (I defy you to leave this film without being overtaken by some ravenous craving) is accompanied by a soundtrack of slurpy soups, spitting and sizzling fried rice, squishy peaches, dribbling full-bodied reds, and bubbling broths. Consuming Tampopo as a drool-worthy dish requires you to consider the sum of its perfectly seasoned parts.