I’m trying to focus on filling life with experiences as opposed to things and when Shannon asked if anyone wanted to go to Secret Cinema X with her for her birthday, I stuck up my hand and went ‘what the hell, yes!’ in a very enthusiastic manner. Suddenly we have tickets (technically I have a ticket and Shannon is my +1. Disabled privilege FTW!) and I’m booking train tickets and trying to figure out what we’ll be seeing.
You see, Secret Cinema X is like the adult cousin of a mystery tour. Rather than going with the themed movie (like the widely touted Moulin Rouge experience currently running), you really have no idea what you’re going to see until you turn up. I’ve wanted to do Secret Cinema, a friend went to Back to the Future, but I really like this idea of not knowing, of avoiding spoilers and literally ‘tell(ing) no one’.
So we get this mysterious hint and we wagered. Shannon wanted to do it because she was convinced it was a very explicit, Korean movie (coincidentally out this week) called The Handmaiden (아가씨). I’d not heard of it but she won me over by going ‘there’s lot of sex and plenty of Japanese dialogue’. I do actually really enjoy Korean movies too, if that helps. Her argument was the style was Japanese and that the snake and the very vaginal looking cherry tree are big motifs in the movie.
So Tuesday night comes around and we’ve received this cryptic message (the meeting point was in an older part of London, hinted at by the limes) and had dressed accordingly. Yes, I own an evening dress. Shush. Getting gloves was another matter but achievable. My only complaint, noted here just to get it out of the way, was there was no cloakroom at this event which irked me as I was carrying a backpack and felt really uncomfortable (I’d come straight from Norfolk and hadn’t had the time to go back to Shannon’s to dump it). Fortunately, as there was table seating, it was an easy enough thing to deal with, just annoying.
So, we turn up at this meeting point, coincidentally right outside an old art deco picture house and I see people dressed in very Korean garb. Shannon won and I was so, so happy. I don’t like surprises, it’s a part of autistic me and I’d been really hoping she was right. We were ushered in (blindness +1) through the front door and into the main auditorium.
It smelled of hanging smoke and incense. The main mezzanine contained a bar and the middle-level tickets (which we’d paid for). Extra bonuses go to us for being early as we were able to snag the best seat in the house and get to the bar in short order. Servants wandered around, guiding people to tables, holding lit paper lanterns, the soundtrack (which is beautiful) was playing over the speakers and, once seated, I went and bought us a £30 bottle of Prosecco to celebrate my loss.
All the ordering was done in silence, pointing and gesticulating. Not a word was uttered.
Ordering is hard when you can’t talk.
The venue offered food for a price; obento boxes which looked delicious but were essentially epically-oversized polystyrene containers. The bar was well stocked and offered plenty of lovely things. Each table also came with a mysterious card reminding guests of the rules of the House, as well as sheets of card for writing on, origami paper and instructions and a lollypop (which plays a roll in the plot).
Once we sat down, it was actually incredibly atmospheric. The Library seating, below us and right by the screen, was focused on a stage and, periodically, a servant would walk across, acting out pastiches from the film. Then a specially-constructed shoji screen would open and a woman in full kimono and wig (supposed to be either Hideko or her Aunt) would appear and read passages (from what I caught of them in VERY NSFW Japanese) from the movie. Think pornography as literature focusing on the careful, doubtless very carefully researched, description of female genitalia.
I got a little hot under the collar, I confess, and that was just from the use of very particular onomatopoeia.
During the movie, the screens were also used to add extra dimensions to certain scenes and it was timed beautifully, the costumes identical and it really made this more than just your average screening. I mean, the film was amazing but this really made it stratospherically beautiful. Smoke hung in the air and sakura blossoms rained down on us, maids moved with lanterns and figures hurried up steps between the three tiers.
It made an otherwise two-dimensional experience much more real, much more immersive.
Eventually the movie itself started and I was spellbound. Honestly, wine and cider helps (of which there was copious amounts) but we were close enough that I could catch some of the subtitles and all of the Japanese. The movie is Korean, as are the actors, and favours the language but there was more than enough Japanese for me to follow.
Visually it’s stunning and is an adaption of Sarah Waters’ The Fingersmith (which sums up everything, IMHO). Except, rather than Victorian London, the movie is set in Japanese-occupied Korea and focuses on a long con involving Sook-hee becoming a lady’s maid (the Handmaiden of the title) to Lady Hideko, a wealthy Japanese aristocrat enslaved by her uncle-by-marriage. She’s there to help her arrogant employer, the self-proclaimed ‘Count Fujiwari’ steal Hideko’s heart then wed and bed her, so the money will follow. However Hideko’s uncle also wants to marry her for money (and is also Korean) just happens to be a connoisseur of pornographic books, as well as a sadist and the film reveals, over three acts, not only how Hideko and Sook-hee fall in love but also how others are fighting for mastery of Hideko’s fate as well as her fortune.
Shannon tells me this is the cut version but that doesn’t make this movie any less explicit. The scenes are gorgeous, the sex … well … I’m very attracted to women so, yeah, wow. Oh and bonus points to go managing to teach the audience a few choice Japanese words (including how to say ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’) as well as throwing in a couple of nods to Tako to Ama (that link is NSFW BTW), one of Hokusai’s most infamous creations better known in the west as The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. The final reference was much more subtle and turned my stomach.
The whole movie has a very surreal feel to it and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what is reality, or whose version of events we’re seeing. The soundtrack is really quite beautiful and the cherry tree is true to its connection with death, though there was some humour in there that sent the audience laughing. Actually, most people really seemed to take the movie well and it’s very surreal watching an 18, very deserving of it’s rating, in a hall with a hundred other people, most of whom seemed to be couples.
Did I mention I got flustered? Good. Because, damn, this movie is gorgeous in so many ways.
The ending is an odd one but perfectly placed. It’s not a romance, but it’s romantic. There’s pornography but the love scenes aren’t pornographic. The acts merge into each other, though the first one feels longer and better paced, than parts two and three.
My only other complaint comes with the end of the movie. After one small hiccup with the print stalling, the movie ended … and they destroyed the mood by promising a dance floor and going straight into playing 1940’s music. Specifically In The Mood. You could hear that beautifully crafted ambiance shatter like a dropped glass. This was only made worse by the sudden talking as the lights came up and the noise level rose.
Damn, guys, damn.
But props for everything else. The care, the attention to detail, the costuming and the servants (who even scribbled in-character replies). The effert put into the staging was brilliant and I loved the shoji screens and the extra on-stage shadowing that popped up at important parts while the movie was playing, including during the sex scenes. It didn’t drag your eye from the screen but just enhanced the movie to a new level of wow.
I absolutely loved it, every aspect of it from the secrecy (kept as far as I can tell). No cameras were allowed inside the venue (the vow of silence mentioned in the image above), hence why I’ve had to be really descriptive. i’m actually glad of that because it allowed us to totally focus on the experience, on being there, and getting very merry.
A totally awesome night and something I’d love to do again.
Edit: Secret Cinema X posted an image from one of the showings, it’s explicit but is also a perfect example of the event and the immersion they were trying to aim for. Enjoy!