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movie review – shadowless sword

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Pour qu’une chose soit interessante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps.

Gustave Flaubert


The altogether too irreproachable So-Ha











I’ve done a couple of movie reviews in the past, and I think I might do them more regularly in the future, just to give some play to my more creative writing side.

The Korean film Shadowless Sword (filmed in China) begins with warfare and a fighting heroine Mae Young-Ok, who unlike La Pucelle in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, doesn’t need voices from heaven or magical powers to help her. This is a modern (2005) movie, though set in the tenth century (presumably the Christian dating is for we westerners’ benefit), and so the heroines are tough, highly skilled sword-fighters with flawless grace, spotless costumes and peerless beauty, which of course I’m all in favour of. Korean women can do anything!

At the outset, we’re told that the old Korean land of Balhae fell to the Georan, a northern tribe, in 926. The Georans renamed the area, but the vanquished people regrouped and fought to recover their homeland. Again, not unlike the situation in La Pucelle’s France in the fifteenth century… And a quick check of Korean history tells me this isn’t MiddleEarth make-beliieve. Balhae, which indeed came to an end in 926, was an empire that covered northern Korea and southern Manchuria for some 300 years. Not that this film’s director, Young-jun Kim, intends to be any more historically accurate than Shakespeare. Billed on SBS as a martial arts film (but it isn’t really, it’s a historical fantasy), Shadowless Sword takes as many liberties with the basic laws of physics, not to mention credibility, as it does with history. Swashbucklers fly through the air with the greatest of ease, disappear in a puff of chemicals, and swat enemy combatants like flies in battle scenes that would leave poor old Richard III scratching his hump in wild surmise. All of which I happily forgive in view of the film’s real heroine, the inscrutable Yeon So-Ha….

In the opening scene, Balhae’s capital Sanggyeong is raided by the Eastern Georan ‘Killer Blade Army’ under their leaders Gun Hwa-Pyung and Mae Young-Ok, and the crown prince is killed. The Balhaens, if that’s what they call themselves, are in crisis, and need to find a new leader, preferably of royal blood, to carry on the fight. This is a problem, as the Killer Blade Army seem intent on murdering every last member of the royal family, but there’s one possibly promising candidate, an exiled prince named Jeong-hyun. Balhae’s PM (probably not elected) sends the nation’s premier swordswoman, the aforementioned So-Ha, to seek out the prince and offer him the kingdom. So-Ha is of course totally stunning as well as prodigiously disciplined and effortlessly talented – probably better suited to recapture the greatness of the dynasty than any male… but her role is to serve.

She finds the quondam prince in a far-flung backwater, trading in the black market under the name of Sosam. When she makes enquiries about his real name, he tries to bump her off via his gang of thugs, which sets up the next scene of choreographed mayhem, this time played half for laughs. So-Ha then confronts Jeonghyun with the situation, that he must take up the role of king. The somewhat embittered Jeonghyun is unimpressed – considering that his motto now is ‘survive no matter what’, why would he take up the apparently lost cause of the Balhaeans? With that answer, he disappears in a burst of fire and smoke, as you do. But he’s not out of trouble, as his beaten-up gang has discovered his identity, and, at the same time, the Killer Blade Army have arrived in the region to dispose of the last remaining royal. Of course So-Ha arrives in time to rescue the prince, whereupon Mae Young-Ok arrives to kill him off. Appropriately, as the bad guy, she’s just slightly less beautiful than So-Ha. They exchange pleasantries – ‘great to meet you at last, I’ve heard so much about you..’ Then there are some attempted negotiations – ‘hand over the prince and nobody else’ll get killed’. The gang leader, a comic character, tries to team up with Mae Young-Ok and the KBA, in the hope of profit, but is slaughtered for his pains, to impress upon us the ruthlessness of the bad guys. In the ensuing violence So-Ha urges Jeonghyun to make a getaway, thus further binding him to her. There follows a lengthy chase over rooftops in the dark with the usual flying and acrobatics and swordplay, but of course they escape, and their relationship, still shaky and suspicious, starts to develop. They retire to a tavern, where the worldly Jeonghyun tempts our squeaky-clean heroine with alcohol and food, to no avail of course, she’s has no such material needs. In fact, this is one of the more interesting scenes, which takes it beyond a mere ‘martial arts’ movie (in fact it is described as belonging to the broad genre of wuxia, which literally means ‘martial arts hero’, a category that So-Ha fits squarely into, a category that includes popular literature, opera, TV and video games).

A group of uniformly clad individuals enter the tavern – their slightly outlandish outfits broadly represent the Georan style in the movie. Jeonghuyn recognises them as another of the ‘gangs’, who are are out for trouble because their leader has been killed. So-Ha, not much interested, suggests they move on, as they’re in constant danger. Our princeling, feeling trapped by this stranger who’s trying to force him into kingship, stands on his dignity, saying that nobody can tell him when to stay or go, and in an access of frustration, he hurls his cup at the gang sitting nearby. They react in the usual low-key but totally ominous fashion of martial-arts types, standing up and asking what might be the matter. Jeonghuyn, apparently improvising, says that his boss, indicating So-Ha, wants to ask if their leader died due to sexual over-indulgence. This of course leads to a confrontation, but before things escalate, a female figure, the former leader’s daughter, floats down from the ceiling, demanding to know what’s going on (I like how these female figures are given such prominence in what is clearly a patriarchal ancient society, a modern twist designed to appeal to both sexes). One of the gang members tells her what So-Ha is alleged to have said, whereupon she shoots the (male) messenger, a reminder of the arbitrariness of ‘justice’ in this world. The daughter, or spirit, than asks So-Ha to repeat what she ‘said’, whereupon the two women retire to the forest, not in the ‘let’s step outside and settle this man-to-man’ fashion of your Rambo type, but to sort things out rationally and truthfully. The spirit-daughter is made aware that it’s Jeonghuyn who’s causing trouble, but that he’s to be forgiven as he’s potentially the saviour of the kingdom. Alternatively, So-Ha may have told her a cock-and-bull tale… In any case the scene reverses old values: the male is infantile, the women are wise, and their cool heads must prevail.

Meanwhile, the KBA leader, Gun, is being castigated by the Georan leadership for not having captured Jeonghuyn or dealt with So-Ha. They’re also annoyed with Gun for his nasty habit of killing off the royal princes, when they want to bring them onside, to bring peace to the country. Gun, though, is driven by family and tribal revenge, as we see through a flashback of his father being tortured and killed before his eyes, and through his regular remarks about family honour counting for everything – the usual primitivist prescription. ‘If you want to achieve something big, you need to control your vengeful spirit,’ the royal courtier tells Gun, in one of the film’s most resonant lines.

Mae Young-Ok is in hot pursuit of our heroes, who are moving from resting place to resting place, all the while talking and arguing about evil spirits and the role of the sword in everyday life, with Jeonghuyn sometimes lashing out at the demands being made on him. While passing through a market town he makes a break for it, but is caught by one of the KBA leaders, at the same time that Mae Young-Ok catches up with So-Ha. There follows the obligatory martial arts scenes, with swordplay and magic and comedy. So-Ha bests Mae Young-Ok, who lives to fight another day, while Jeonghuyn comprehensively slaughters his adversary – another milestone on the road to kingship. The pair reunite and flee, chased by the KBA. Just before they’re caught, they jump in the lake, which leads to underwater swordfighting, which starts to make me wonder if this is all based on real events. At one point Jeonghuyn looks like drowning, but trusty magical So-Han gives him the kiss of life. They eventually escape through the sewers or something, where they have another heart-to-heart about kingship, duty and destiny, rudely interrupted by the magical arrival of Gun. More unbelievable swordplay ensues, with no conclusion – the good guys make their escape, with Jeonghuyn wounded in the back, and Gun is left looking murderous and steadfast.

In the next scene, the two bad guys contemplate their failure, and Mae Young-Ok is given one last chance to kill So-Ha. Meanwhile, So-Ha tends Jeonghuyn’s wound, the second serious wound in the back he’s suffered. Jeonghuyn makes light of it, but So-Ha reminds him of his youth, before his exile, when he fought bravely for the dynasty. Then we have flashback of the battle in which he received his first wound, and where, as So-Ha reminds him, he received the title of ‘General Splendour’ and the acclaim of the people. Clearly So-Ha knows more than one might expect, and all the while she’s trying to push towards acceptance of his destiny. Her faith in him, of course, comes with a degree of sexual tension.

Once Jeonghuyn has sufficiently recovered they travel on through the countryside disguised as Georans. They witness the suffering of the people and the brutality of the Georan overlords, all intended to sway Jeonghuyn to the side of righteousness. At the next resting-place, he starts practising his swordsmanship; he’s falling under the spell of the shadowless sword, apparently. Shortly after this, at a stream where Jeonghuyn catches fish, they’re ambushed by Mae Young Ok and her band. In spite of being sitting ducks, Mae Young-Ok’s gang misses them with their arrows – incredibly incompetent for a super-warrior. So we have another chase, with magical flights through the trees, and another inconclusive clash of the two woman-warriors. Somehow the good guys fight off the bad guys, but So-Ha has been struck by an envenomed dart, and she begins to weaken. This is the occasion for another piece of moralising, as So-Ha insists that she be left behind, for Jeonghuyn must continue onto his destiny. Jeonghuyn though, argues that if it is a kingly duty to leave his man behind to die, while preserving himself, then he wants nothing to do with kingly duties. So-Ha relents and allows herself to assisted.

They arrive at the home of a man So-Ha calls her uncle, who greets Jeonghuyn as a royal prince. So-Ha collapses, the venom is discovered, and she’s given no chance of recovery.

In the next scene we’re at Georan HQ, where they’re concerned that So-Ha’s uncle is raising an army against them. Gun’s men, the Killer Blade Army, having failed in their task, are to be replaced by the Golden Bow Army. Gun and Mae Young-Ok are pretty unhappy about this, but the Georan PM is adamant. However, he forces Mae Young-Ok to sleep with him, making vague promises to give her another chance. Gun, seeing this, remembers the promise that he made to his faithful warrior-servant, that once all the royal children were killed, they would create their own dynasty together. He’s not a happy chappie.


women warriors


So now it is Jeonghuyn’s turn to watch over So-Ha, who miraculously recovers. Gun kills the Georan PM, while Jeonghuyn recognises So-Ha’s uncle as the commander from the battle of his youth, who tended his wound. So-Ha rises from her sick-bed, recognising that Jeonghuyn is in danger, but Gun arrives to confront her. Her uncle, though, intervenes, and begins a fight with Gun which you know he’s going to lose. Meanwhile the KBA, or is it the GBA, attacks Jeonghuyn while he’s visiting his mother’s grave, but S0-Ha rescues him. Returning to camp, they’re attacked again, this time by Mae Young-Ok, who assures So-Ha that if she overuses her energy now, her arteries will become twisted and she will die. So much for ancient Chinese medicine. Anyway, after more inconclusive balletic battling, along comes Gun to save the day. It’s the moment of truth, at long fucking last. Gun squares off against So-Ha, informing her that he’s disposed of her uncle. He promises to do the same with Jeonghuyn, telling her that she can win only with a decisive killing blow. Can your sword kill? he taunts her. She responds with one of the film’s tropes – the sword is not for killing but for protecting valuable things. With that they commence their final whirligig battle, which ends when Mae Young-Ok tries to intervene and is run through by So-Ha. So-Ha stops, stunned, and Gun takes the opportunity to run Mae Young-Ok through in the opposite direction, in the process delivering what will be the mortal blow to So-Ha. This of course further emphasises Gun’s black nature, and Mae Young-Ok gives a ‘ya shouldna oughta done that, boss’ look to Gun before dropping dead.

Meanwhile Jeonghuyn comes to the party. He’s been on the periphery of things, but rushes up to tend to So-Ha. ‘Nothing can stand in my way,’ says Gun, ‘now watch me slice up this little princeling’. Jeonghuyn notices Gun’s sword, which he took from the crown prince when he killed him. Gun conveniently tells him that two identical swords were given to two princes. This brings on a flashback. He remembers when, as a youth, he taught an orphan girl (yes, the young So-Han) to fight with this sword, telling her it wasn’t for fighting but for protecting valuable things. So he takes up So-Ha’s sword and prepares to fight Gun to the death. Needless to say, he wins, being able to control the ‘internal injury’ (you’d have to see it, and you still wouldn’t believe it).

Returning to So-Ha, who’s still on her feet, brave warrior that she is, Jeonghuyn becomes emotional – ‘if it weren’t for you…’, and So-Ha responds ‘you have been the meaning of my life for the past 14 years’, and suddenly legions of armed men emerge from the bushes, not to fight but to pledge allegiance to their new king. Then suddenly they come under attack – signifying that there will be bloodshed in the kingdom for some time to come. Yet somehow, through the magic of film, our two good guys find themselves alone, which allows for a truly touching death scene, with tears dribbling down. So So-Ha will not become the power behind the throne, except in spirit. Jeonghuyn is now alone. We next see him leading his troops into battle, no longer resembling a Chinese Mick Jagger, and giving a stirring speech à la Elizabeth I or Churchill (sorry about the western references)….

So that’s Shadowless Sword, a marginally superior wuxia movie, I suspect, though I’m no expert – with an impossibly virtuous heroine, which does have a romantic appeal even to an old cynic like me. In some ways it takes me back to my own dreamy childhood, when, bedridden with the mumps, I spent my time reading a prose version of Edmund Spenser’s Tales from the Faerie Queane, and fell in love with the fair Britomartis, who donned armour to rescue her father from the wicked clutches of some black knight or other, in a world of dungeons, dragons and ugly old witches disguised as fair young maidens. Funny how vivid those childhood memories can be. Though no doubt distorted and inaccurate. What I liked too about the movie was the suppressed, or unexpressed sexuality of it all. So-Ha’s competence and unflappability made her sexy, not her dress, her walk, or anything ‘feminine’ about her. That again, took me back to Britomartis and Shakespeare’s Rosalind and other insouciant androgynes. There are certain types, it seems to me, that transcend culture, and I really love that.

Written by stewart henderson

December 14, 2014 at 12:59 pm

why is l’Annulaire so charming, enfin?

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Pardonnez-moi, mademoiselle, voulez-vous regarder mes specimens?

Here, for a change, is a film review. Though I’m a wannabe science nerd, I can’t help now and then returning to my roots, as an uberkool arts dude. Fact is, though I’m a regular listener to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts, I can’t even pretend to be interested in their sci-fi movie and tv-series passions and references (pace Doctor Who), with rarely a mention of classical or even modern literature or cool art-house movies.  C’est pitoyable!

So I’m going to treat myself here to something that comes much more easily to me than science writing.

I first saw the so-Frenchy-so-chic film l’Annulaire (The Ring Finger) a few years ago, and was gripped, though I must admit I was barely able to see past the absorbingly delightful presence and performance of Olga Kurylenko. Not that I’m beating myself up over this – Kurylenko’s beauty and aloneness and vulnerable little glances and smiles and moments of languor would provide plentiful fuel for any sensualist’s fire, be she male, female or otherwise. She’s perfection in this role.

But seeing the film for the second time the other day, and via SBS on demand, so that I could treat it as I would treat a good book, rereading certain passages, going over things I didn’t quite catch, luxuriating in the best moments and effects, I gained a richer experience, while also noting a few flaws. In fact some of the clunkier elements of the film only serve to enhance the authenticity of Kurylenko’s performance.

Kurylenko plays twenty-one year-old Iris, about whom we know nothing except that she’s working in a lemonade bottling factory in the beginning of the film, where she has an accident, badly cutting her ring finger. We next find her wandering though a port city, nursing her bandaged finger, looking for work. And also looking for love or sex or some kind of romantic adventure. For example, while wandering along the docks, she sees a ferry filling up with people and decides impulsively to board it. On the trip across the water she finds herself watching a young man who finds himself watching her. She looks away awkwardly but when the ferry arrives at its destination – an island or maybe just the other side of the harbour, it’s all a bit vague – she follows the young man, in a sort of irresolute stalking manoeuvre, into a park or garden, where she loses track of him at a set of forking paths. She’s about to retreat completely, but finally takes one of the paths which leads her to an austere old building. On the door is a note advertising a job as a clerk to help with specimens – no experience required, apparently. She decides to apply. Ans so the real fantasy begins.

Now the film’s opening scene, before the credits roll, takes place inside this ‘lab’, with the white-coated ‘doctor’ discussing the preservation of a specimen of fungus – mushrooms in fact – with a serious-looking young woman. It doesn’t make much sense, but this is the weird world the solitary Iris is about to enter. She’s already rented accommodation in the port town, time-sharing a motel room with a sailor who works on the docks. She wanders about the room, staring at the docks and the water, wondering about the man’s clothing in the wardrobe and on a hanger by the glass doors facing the sea. Features are emerging – water, solitude, longing. And also, the heat – or, to use the much more evocative French word, chaleur. Iris drips with sweat in the hospital where her finger is treated, and half-faints with the heat in the reception area of the hostel where she applies for a room. The heat promotes a languor, a slowing of pace, a slightly hallucinatory, unreal effect.

So Iris is invited into this ‘lab’ by the ‘doctor’. He’s a walking cliché, you might say, but a very deliberate one. He’s never without his white coat, he’s quite a bit older than Iris, he’s silent, austere, masterful, and apparently entirely focused on his thoroughly enigmatic vocation. After a brief interview, she becomes his employee, his dependent, even more unsure of her role and her tasks after his explanation of them than before. But she enters into the arrangement willingly enough, in keeping with her driftily adventurous spirit.

So after securing this employment she removes the bandage from her ring finger, as if it has gained strength, or the security it symbolizes has been reinforced. Before starting work the next day, she drifts through the port’s red light district, and ponders in the room she shares with the sailor, with its twin beds – brief, elliptical sexual signs.  At work, her boss, who seems the sole occupant of the old building, is at turns forbidding and benevolent, unpredictable, a bit like that Judeo-Christian god, keeping her alert and a little on edge. Mostly, though, he’s friendly and reassuring, so she’s happy to stay with the adventure. On her second day, she sleeps in and has to rush, but not before noting and fondling the sailor’s coat hanging in the wardrobe. She has left one of her dresses on the hanger, billowing beside the open glass door, for him to contemplate in her absence.

Iris’s nameless boss shows her the mushroom specimen he’s prepared in a test tube, and they contemplate it together, in a moment of low-key, tentative intimacy – with more than a touch of the predatory on his part. It’s a bit of a Q and A session, with the doc explaining the meaning and significance of the specimens. They’re symbols of loss – the mushrooms grew on the property of someone – the girl – whose house burned down. The specimens aren’t given to the clients, they’re kept at the lab. Clients can come to see them, but usually don’t. They’re simply symbols of closure, not for nostalgia but for preservation and separation of the past. It’s an odd and not entirely convincing conceit, but it has a certain romantic asceticism to it. At the end of this session Iris brings to mind her ring finger, which she sucks, lost to emotion. The faces here are in extreme close-up, and Iris/Olga is becoming painfully irresistible.

derriere chaque bonne femme, un homme de mystere

derriere chaque bonne femme, un homme de mystere

Back at her rented digs, Iris passes the sailor in the hall, and learns that this is the young man she time-shares with, and her curiosity is clearly piqued, as is his. All without a word. At work, while noting that the ‘doc’ sometimes disappears through an apparently forbidden door, she meets a new client who wants a piece of music preserved. Not the sheet music but the notes themselves. Written for her by an ex-beau. The woman, of middle age, is plainly still in love and suffering. Iris is kind and slightly overwhelmed. After the client’s departure, she hums the notes of the music to herself. In one of the old building’s interminable corridors, she’s pulled out of reverie by a little boy’s musical tapping, and the response of a woman further down the hall, who almost supernaturally disappear as suddenly as they appear. So there are other residents, occupants, denizens of this place…. Iris smiles deliciously.

The doc makes one of his sudden appearances, and silently peruses the musical manuscript, comments on the intense heat, promises air-conditioning…. then he invites her for a word, down to his inner sanctum, behind the forbidden door. It appears to be an old municipal baths, a cool retreat from the chaleur. They’ve now become more intimate, closer. Intensity is captured in close up, and In Iris’s shifting expressions, the playful smile, the flicker of fear, the innocent uncertainty. The doctor announces that her shoes are of too poor quality for her role and her person. He has bought her a beautiful new pair, blood red. She unwraps them with astonishment, with wonder, with pleasure, with some concern. ‘How did you know my size?’ she asks, the laughter dying on her face. She doesn’t know what to make of this man, who has saved her, after a fashion, and given her some adventure, after a fashion. She half-heartedly refuses the shoes but he insists, and he puts them on her himself. Foot fetishists will love this scene, and Iris/Olga’s expressions here are priceless. She near faints away when her foot slips into the shoe. The doctor explains that he knows her shoe size just by looking at her. He’s a naturalist after all. He gets her to walk before him with the new shoes, telling her she must wear them at all times, whether he can see her or not. Another god-type demand, and she don’t look too happy about it. Nevertheless, and inevitably, we next see her wearing her new shoes around the docks.

In her motel room, she finds a vase of little purple flowers – a gift from her young room-mate? She’s delighted, and she investigates a book he appears to be reading, and his passport…

One day she arrives at work soaked from the rain. The doctor, as always, distant, controlling, but benevolent, makes her a hot toddy, and helps her out of her wet clothes, in the underground baths. All perfectly normal behaviour from a caring employer. She submits like a slave, and yet she always shows spirit, her eyes widen in wonder as he explains that he’ll take her wet things to be dried and ironed ‘by the woman in room 233’. ‘Is she the one who plays the piano?’ she asks. ‘No, that’s the woman in 209’, he replies, providing, like a rare morsel of food, some information about these ageing lingerers in the old building.

The doc doesn’t take advantage of Iris’s near nakedness, but leaves, with her garments, while she awaits him, wrapped in a towel and an air of confusion. Clearly, another barrier has been breached. And next we follow Iris, fully clothed again, as she trots behind her master to visit the piano lady, to ask her (and in fact demand of her, with the doc’s usual cordial firmness) to play and so preserve the musical ‘specimen’. While in the lady’s room, Iris sees a photo of a lot of young women standing in front of the ‘laboratory’, which was then, perhaps, a nursing school, or maybe a home for fallen women, we don’t know. To one side stands our doctor, white-coated of course, and apparently ageless, as if he’s struck some Faustian or Dorian Gray-style deal. On examining this photograph, Iris exchanges a meaning gaze with the doctor, who remains as inscrutable as ever. It’s actually a key scene – the doc has also invited the other lady, the ‘clothing lady’ we might call her, into this room to hear the music, perhaps as a witness to the ‘specimen’, and glances are exchanged also between Iris and the clothing lady, who smiles knowingly, and between the clothing lady and the doc, who smile to each other in apparent collusion. The mind leaps to the idea, or the knowledge, that this woman is one of the young lasses in the photo, and that some kind of strange, sexual, harem-like happenings are being referred to, in the most civilized, tea-and-scones kind of way. The clothing lady also shows an unwonted, but silent, interest in Iris’s shoes, as if she’s well aware of what’s what in regard to them, much to Iris’s embarrassment. But as we see in another lingering scene on the docks, Iris is fascinated, almost obsessed, with these shoes of hers.

The next scene is also key. Iris receives a new client, a softly-spoken, impoverished-looking elderly black man, who wants a specimen made of the bones of a sparrow who’d been sharing his flat for years, before dying of old age. While they discuss this, the man comments admiringly on her beautiful shoes. Turns out he’s been a shoe-shiner at La Gare Centrale (another vague designation) for the past 50 years. He points out how perfectly the shoes fit. ‘Let me give you advice. Even if they’re very comfortable, don’t wear them too often. Or, young lady, you’ll risk losing your feet. Can’t you see there’s hardly any room between your feet and the shoes? That proves the shoes are taking possession of your feet?’ ‘Possession?’ asks Iris. ‘Exactly,’ says the man (it all sounds so much more intime in French). He offers to shine her shoes if she will visit him at his work station.

The film continues with inexplicable moments and incidents – she hears piano music, and tries to investigate, then the phone rings, someone wants a specimen of a shadow, she thinks not, but as she responds, the clothing woman creeps about in the corridor behind her bearing flowers…  She works late, pondering over the sparrow bones, and is discovered by the doc, who makes small talk about her new hairstyle.

Back in her motel room she massages her feet thoughtfully, dreamily… Then, back on the ferry, on her way to work, she sees the young sailor, on a bridge, watching. She stands up, faces him and smiles, youth and hope, sensuality at a safe distance. Then he’s in the motel room, sniffing at one of her dresses – as you do – and hanging it up to blow in the sea breeze.

Meanwhile, the chaleur oppresses. Iris, at work, opens up her blouse for relief, without realizing that the doc has made one of his sudden appearances at her door. He complains of the heat driving away the clients. She has buttoned up and is discomfited by his presence, especially when he asks after her shoes…  He asks that she help him put his specimens in order during this quiet period, and so she follows him, but they end up in the basement, in the cool spaciousness of the old baths… And here the doc becomes an old charmer, after his fashion. He reminisces about the young women showering there, the running water, the soap and froth and chatter, and all that nakedness. Iris asks about those women, and the women from rooms 223 and 209. Yes, he says, they were there, and just about your age, then. But now, all is dry. No water, no soap… Those women have now aged, there’s only you and me (or ‘I’m not ageist, but…’)

So now the moment of seduction has arrived. He leads her to the centre of the baths, undresses her slowly, and we hear her breath and see her desire. She lies on the floor, naked, and he, still in his lab coat of course, enters her, at once brutal and slightly ridiculous. He pulls her on top of him, and urgently asks, as you do at such moments, ‘Is there anything you’d like preserved? We all need specimens.’ ‘Me too? Even you?’ she wonders. ‘Yes. Think, there must be something you’d like as a specimen. Let’s look at it from a different angle. What’s your most painful memory? Something awful.’ ‘I lost the tip of my ring finger.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘I lost it, in lemonade, in the factory. I fainted.’ ‘So your ring finger will never be the same?’

Back in the motel room, Iris is contemplative but happy. She swings gaily from an old tyre in the docklands, watched, unbeknown, by the young sailor. Then back at work she falls asleep on the job, dreaming of the shower and the young girls, watched by their white-coated doc, and meanwhile the young sailor is in the motel, apparently dreaming of Iris.

When she arrives back at the motel she finds a note. The sailor, Costa, is leaving and would like to meet her. He asks for a rendezvous at a local bar. As it turns out, the bar’s pretty wild – sailors, girls, every port and all. Iris turns up to see Costa being accosted by a likely lady. She takes flight and Costa pursues her – in the languid and tentative manner that’s the signature of this film. He stares up at the motel room; she emerges, stares briefly at him, then retreats, shuts the door, extinguishes the light. Hope’s deferred, making the heart sick.

She showers in sensual water. At work, the doc asks her for help with his specimens again. She’s uncertain – what about the clients? They won’t come in this uncertain weather, he assures her. He offers her an apron, as if to say, ‘this time, no hanky-panky’.  Among the burgeoning specimens, she asks him where they might be put, as they accumulate.  ‘Perhaps we may have to use the baths’, he suggests. This alarms her. ‘When the bathroom is turned into a preservation room, what will we do then?’ she asks, with delicious innocence.

That’s enough for the doc, and we’re back in the underground baths, and this time the sex is uninhibited, symbolized by the horrifying fact that the doc has taken off his lab coat. But who is Iris thinking of, the doc or the sailor?

Afterwards, she returns to the motel. Costa has left her what appears to be a box of chocolates. She lies on his rumpled bed…

Back at work, the young woman of the mushrooms, who has a burn on her cheek, returns. She asks Iris if she can have another specimen. She, too, is beautiful. The doctor is called for, assures her he can help, and leads her off to the lab. Iris is  upset, jealous, and tries to raise questions, but the doc, authoritarian as ever, orders her to get on with preparing the paperwork. So – power, authority, invested in maleness. Iris feels insecure, humiliated. Through the day she serves other clients, but is ever-watchful for her ‘rival’. She goes to the door of the lab and tries to open it, to no avail. She wanders the docks again, thinking, dreaming of the red shoes, his hands on her feet, her legs… Back in the motel room, a storm rages, and she’s alone. At work again, she searches desperately for traces of the girl, and her specimen. She’s beside herself. She encounters one of the elderly ladies, who talks to her about her work. ‘Most of those who’ve worked here didn’t last long. They would just vanish.’ ‘What about the previous girl?’ ‘Yes, she was about your age. I remember particularly the sound of her shoes. Neat, regular. I’m very sensitive to sound. No I don’t remember the colour of her shoes.. Where did she go? Who knows? I hope you don’t leave so suddenly…’ Discomfited by the older woman’s slightly mocking tone, Iris cuts short the conversation, and continues in search of her rival’s specimen. She finds a photo of a girl, of her age, wearing striking shoes. As she stares at it, it begins to fade, disappear. Will Iris disappear so suddenly? She hurries off, disturbed, harried. Covered in sweat, she’s drying herself off when she encounters a new client, a silent Chinese man, who leaves in her possession a mahjong set. While she’s examining it, the doc makes another of his sudden appearances… He asks her to put it on a shelf, but the set opens as she picks it up, and all the pieces scatter over the floor.

The masterful doctor tells her that every piece must be put back where it belongs, if it takes all night. So, watched over by the master, she languidly, interspersed with periods of sleep or catatonia, picks up each far-flung piece and puts it back in its place. Heavy symbolism no doubt lost on me. When she finishes, the master takes her in his arms. ‘We’ve seen the morning in together,’ she says, as though this is a sign of love rather than power. ‘Take me to the lab,’ she adds. ‘I’m the only one who can go there’, he says. ‘But what about the girl with the burn?’  ‘That was about a specimen. They have priority.’ ‘So I’ll be able to go there if I ask for a specimen I can keep forever?’ He doesn’t respond, but sucks her ring finger tenderly. She seems content…

She visits the shoe-shining man, who is very pleased to see her. She assures him about his specimen, and he applies his special cream to her shoes. ‘Were the shoes given to you by someone?’ he asks. ‘Are you in love with him?’ ‘I sometimes wonder,’ she says. ‘I don’t know, but I can’t easily leave him.’ ‘It’s because of your shoes. If you don’t take them off, you’ll never get away. Get a specimen, so that your feet will be free.’ ‘I don’t want that.’ ‘Do you want to go back there?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Well, I will say goodbye then’, says the shoeshine man. ‘I won’t see you again.’ She looks at her finger, and makes her return, via a long tunnel. I don’t pretend to know what all this means.

La belle Iris reve de son annulaire

La belle Iris reve de son annulaire

Back at work, Iris writes a specimen label or ticket – ‘Iris, ring finger.’ She takes this ticket down to the lab. Outside the door, she takes off her shoes. With her shoes in one hand, her ticket in the other, she knocks on the door. It opens, and all we see is bright light. She drops the shoes, and disappears into the light.

Make of this what you will, it’s a beautiful film exploring love, desire, security, connection, power and vulnerability – and not just that of Iris – all in a deceptively simple, unadorned package. Clearly I’ve been self-indulgent in my descriptions here, using them as an excuse to linger over the film’s most memorable scenes, which for me aren’t the overtly sexual scenes but the covertly sexual ones – characters in isolation, loving and longing, hungering and recalling.

I’ve mentioned clunkiness – the occasional continuity error, and scenes and characters that added little, apart from more mystery. For example, a little boy often appears in the scenes at the lab – an impish spirit who watches over Iris. Is he the product of one of the doc’s dalliances with his employees? Is he a prisoner or a free spirit? I suspect he’s a more integrated character in the book on which this film was based – a ‘cult erotic novel’, so the blurb goes, by Yoko Ogawa, and the director, Diane Bertrand, didn’t quite know what to do with him. Some of the clients, too, seemed superfluous to requirements, though I’m quite prepared to accept that I may have missed a few nuances.

But in spite of this the film succeeds, not least because of the central actor’s performance. Olga Kurylenko is now quite a big name, but I suspect I’ll always associate her, first and foremost, with this very demanding, make or break role. In writing this piece, I very willingly researched the captivating Kurylenko, and frankly it moved me beyond bearing to uncover this delightful interview, apparently set up in her own home, maybe in about 2010, in which among other things she talked of The Ring Finger, her movie debut, as one of those rare experiences in which she fell in love with the character… Olga, in this rough-as-guts video, as far from media hype as you can get, reveals herself to be as delightful, warm and genuine as Iris, a woman who recognises her good fortune, but who has genuine talent, and an emotional depth that shines though on and off screen. I feel strangely proud of her after having learned so much about her, as if she were a close relative who has realised her dream. I cannot recommend this film, and its star, highly enough.

Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm

on the natural conservativism of comedy

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Watching an American coming of age movie, a ‘comedy-drama’ (you know the type, with a preachy thread holding it together), superior to the average in some ways but still riddled with clichés: the teenage girl complains to her mum about somehow getting an unwarranted reputation as a slut. The mother says to her daughter, ‘oh yeah, I used to get that all the time.’

‘Yeah but they didn’t call you a slut, did they?’

‘Well yes, they did actually. But that’s cause I was a slut. I slept around all the time. You know, I had a lot of self esteem issues back then…’

Hohoho, and so modern. Well not really. She might’ve said, ‘I slept around all the time. You know I was very self-confident and exploratory back then, and I was popular and curious about other people, and I really loved sex..’

Maybe not so funny but with a bit of tweaking… And to be fair, some of the more recent comedies are inching in this direction.

Written by stewart henderson

June 26, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Posted in morality, sex

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