Secret Cinema X: The Handmaiden (아가씨)

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!

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Winter Tide (Review) by Ruthanna Emrys

Let me be honest, not only did I score an e-ARC but I’ve been looking forward to this book since The Litany of Earth. It’s rare for me to fall so in love with books that I want to both devour them in one go and savour them over a span of days like chocolate. So, with that in mind, I originally read this is one day but am now, thanks to the audiobook, slowly appreciating all the subtle nuances I might have missed.

Winter Tide is gorgeous. It’s the cosmology of Lovecraft without the nastiness (aka the racism, the bigotry and other ideas which sadly taint a stunning literary universe). Indeed, identity, culture and otherness, they’re all front and centre; Aphra isn’t a ‘Person of the Air’, she’s got the sea running in her blood and, after her transformation, will live in the Deep Once cities until the sun burns out. It’s not forever but it’s still billions of years. The language is so Lovecraftian but it’s a gentle kind of esoteric, it doesn’t put you off but instead makes you ponder words and their meaning. At the same time, she’s still recovering from her people’s incarceration and genocide in camps later reused for the internment of the Japanese. This leads her into the lives of the Koto family with her brother, Caleb, as her only remaining kin on land. Oh and it’s left her scarred, mentally, as such a traumatic experience is wont to do. It’s even more relevant, now, for example than I think even the author thought it would be.

The story does kick off from Litany, as well as some mentions to the short story (which you should so go and read. Now. I’ll wait.) but the Tor short is essentially a prologue to a much bigger arc. Searching after old magics and fears Russians are using body-switching as the next weapon in a magical cold war, Aphra, her government minder and Neko, her adopted Japanese sister, return to Innsmouth and Miskatonic University. Both are, of course, important locations in the world of Lovecraft and they are eerie in the extreme. It feels odd to be somewhere so familiar but so strange, a place where you can study folklore and other subjects which are literal fusions of magic with physical sciences.

Occasionally, I was thrown by the odd flashback (especially in audio where the demarcation between scenes is just absent). Along the way, Aphra encounters new friends and old family. It does feel a tad deus ex machina to encounter not only a Yith but also transformed members of Aphra’s own people, now living in the depths below Innsmouth. Yet the idea of her faith, Aeonism, being openly worshipped with its own temples and rituals, is gorgeous and transforms the book from a simple mystery with magical overtones to a true Lovecraft mythos novel, reimagined for a new era but enduring never the less.

Winter Tide, Book One of The Innsmouth Legacy, is available now in ebook, print and audio from all the usual places. You can also follow the author on Twitter and you totally should.

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On Audiobooks

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Once upon a time, there was only one place to go for audiobooks (on cassettes no less!): The RNIB. Now, thanks to the internet, we have a dozen sources of audiobooks and, even better, they’re now mainstream. People, both visually impaired and otherwise, can enjoy them. Even better nearly all the books I want to read are made available the day of their print publication.

I’m a hard-core convert, for example, to Audible.com, an Amazon company which specialises in audiobooks. I actually prefer the US incarnation, though I have subscriptions to both them and the UK incarnation. The US version has more books, including some which have yet to be published in the UK due to licensing.

Ebooks are great but audiobooks are much more immersive; I can listen to them on the bus, at the gym, walking through Norwich. Last time I checked, it’s impossible to read a book and walk. Especially when blind. I have favourite authors but I also have favourite narrators, they’re actually really important as a bad reading can kill my love for a book in less than two minutes. I’m long expressed my love for Luke Daniels, Mary Robinette Kowal and Robin Miles.

When my visual issues and reduced attention span, an audiobook is a much easier medium to keep my attention. Books have to be really, really good (and often non-ficition and biographies) to keep me scrolling. Some are series, some are one shots, other novellas but the most important thing is: they’re usually well produced and unabridged. The best thing is, you don’t actually need to be blind to enjoy them so here are some of my favourites in no particular order of awesomeness:

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Every Heart a Doorway: A Review

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I’ve been waiting for Seanan McGuire’s latest for a while. I loved her short story “Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage” and Every Heart A Doorway is almost an extension of that tale, focusing on the children who came home and wished they’d stayed. I bought this novella—which is what this is, really—via Audible and it was five hours I’m so glad to spend in a magical world, sort of like Hogwarts but with High Nonsense instead of magic. I wanted to visit Nancy’s world, the Land of the Dead, where Persephone ate pomegranate seeds and the darkness is spotted by stars.

Published by Tor.com, this is not a novel, rather it’s one of several tales which are transcending the boundaries, welcoming shorter fiction into accepted society. Before Tor, everything had to be a novel but this story is perfectly paced. I’m a huge fan, freely admitted, of Seanan’s other fiction, especially her Mira Grant persona (hell, Uni and I, well Lesley, died in one of her stories; that’s how much of a fan I am).

The audiobook, my preferred medium, was beautiful. Perfectly narrated and leaving me wanting more … even though the stort stands-alone quite perfectly. It’s a beautiful work, mixing special children with the grief that comes from growing up. I adore it; and all the broken hearts that come with it. So many children visit other worlds but being forced to grow up is another kind of torture.

Seriously, you owe it to yourself to read this, right now.

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