Saturday, 17 February 2018


It is no surprise that colonialism should have such an important role to play as the thematic lynchpin in Derek Nguyen’s debut feature The Housemaid (Cô Haû Gaí). The film, set in Vietnam in 1953 during the French Indochina War, positions itself as a traditional Gothic romance, a genre with many established literary antecedents in the 19th century that set a textual precedent for dealing with issues that arise from the fact of colonialism and the social dynamics of Empire -- including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, or even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. When it comes to the Gothic in cinema and on screen, none have mined the post-colonial guilt of a faded empire nation more effectively than Britain’s Hammer films in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially when it could find ways to combine the theme with Freudian notions of the return of the repressed; for example, in the sexually charged exoticism that underscores Jon Gilling’s The Reptile. However, Nguyen’s approach to the Gothic and to colonialism have much more in common with the work of Guillermo Del Toro in his films The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and, more recently, Crimson Peak which set creepy, fantastical goings-on in a closed location defined by a particular milieu, and use familiar tropes related to the Gothic genre to provide metaphorical context and commentary on specific historical events.

Writer-director Nguyen was born in what was then Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1973. His family left South Vietnam for the United States two years later, along with 130,000 refugees who also fled the country during the US evacuation, fearing retribution from the forces of the invading North Vietnamese. In The Housemaid, Nguyen reaches back several decades to before the Geneva Accords and the ensuing communist insurgency, to when the Viet Cong’s predecessors, the Viet Minh, were fighting a war which had been raging since 1946, for independence from French colonial forces. The complexity of the historical detail matters little to the arc of the story but is used merely to provide an anchor for a tale that seldom strays beyond the borders of a once grand but now gone-to-seed French colonial estate on the grounds of a rubber plantation hiding a very dark and violent history of abuse and oppression. This decaying mansion and the forbidding forest of rubber trees on its outskirts provide all the Gothic menace one could hope to derive from such a tale, as Nguyen turns for his Gothic model to a recent successful update of the recipe that recently helped revitalise Hammer Films: namely the 2012 adaptation of The Woman in Black

Originally, that story took the form of a novella by writer Susan Hill, and aimed to capture the essence of traditional fireside ghost stories like those that once might have been told by M.R. James to his Cambridge students over a glass of Christmas sherry. For the updated film iteration, imagery and more forthright jump-scare techniques borrowed from modern J Horror were also brought to the table. This is the style The Housemaid slavishly seeks to imitate, although after commencing with a strong but imitative prologue that reproduces a vision of the threating, darkly veiled spectral entity familiar from the source of its inspiration, the film later drifts into waters apparently more sedate, but with a stronger focus on areas of dark romance and sexuality. It becomes a fable-like exploration of the unequal but ambiguous erotic power dynamics that lie behind the master and servant, oppressed and oppressor relationships so intrinsic to a colonial set up, but will probably mystify or bore western horror fans who aren’t also up on their Poe or Daphne Du Maurier -- although this aspect of the tale doesn’t appear to have harmed its reception at home. However, this "third-highest-grossing horror film in Vietnam’s history" (a nice publicity line, but how many horror films from Vietnam have there actually been?) can’t resist for long the urge to unleash its own budget version of a ‘kitchen sink’ finale, as the last act presents a veritable torrent of enjoyably over-the-top pyrotechnic set-pieces and unlikely plot twists in a bid to hold its own with contemporary western fright flicks along the lines of Insidious or The Conjuring and its ilk. 

Nguyen’s screenplay admittedly does an impressive job, though, of outlining a very specific period in Vietnam’s history and making its content perfectly fit the well-defined contours of an utterly conventional ghost story cum Gothic Romance. The film’s nervous young orphaned heroine, Linh (Kate Nhung), arrives at the Sa-Chat estate on a suitably stormy night, looking for work as a housemaid after her family has been killed in air raids that wiped out most of her village. Austere head housekeeper Mrs Han (Kim Xuan) and an affable cook who claims also to be a witch (Phi Phung) are the only occupants of the otherwise-empty mansion, which is being preserved like a museum relic until the eventual return of its master -- currently away fighting communist guerrillas as an officer in the French army. Meanwhile brooding groundskeeper Mr Chau (Kien An) lives alone in one of the outer huts on the rubber plantation formerly used to house the French overseers who once made life a misery for the poor indigenous workers tricked into coming from all over the country to toil on the estate on the promise of good wages and a decent place to live. 

The estate’s dark history is defined by its troubling mixture of public exploitation and a very private, domestic form of grief: the imperialist cruelty and violence meted out to the plantation workers and their families – in the form of whippings, beatings and rapes – exists alongside the mental disintegration behind closed doors of the French estate manager’s tragic wife Madam Camille who, suffering from post-natal depression, reputably went mad with loneliness when her husband was called away to fight in the war: she drowned the couple’s baby in the bathtub but continued long after to administer to its rotting corpse in its crib, until finally drowning herself in a nearby lake. These macabre legacies of Empire (according to the kitchen cook, who tells Linh all about them) each leave their own imprint on the house and its surrounding grounds: Madam Camille’s black-shrouded ghost apparently haunts the hallways, staircases and recesses of the now-neglected mansion; while the spirits of the many hundreds of workers, murdered when the war for independence first broke out, allegedly now wander the forest of rubber trees under which their bones still lie buried in hidden mass graves.

The first act establishes Linh as a new and disruptive presence at the empty Sa-Chat estate -- with its grisly retinue of stirred up secrets and its still-uncertain future -- and falls into a pattern familiar to many traditional spook fests in which long, slow, moody sequences, where the young housemaid explores the mansion’s dark corridors by lamplight, are followed by the tension-release of a sudden jump scare. This is where the film is at its most Woman in Black-ish, with briefly glimpsed ghostly figures swishing into the frame, just beyond the protagonist’s eye-line as she wanders rooms and landings designed to showcase lush production design and set dressings highlighting a mix of Vietnamese and Western architectural and ornamental influences. These early forbidding explorations of Linh’s are also disturbed by the hollow, echoing, insistent cries of an unseen mewling baby, heard in some far-off, unidentifiable section of the house; and the inexplicable sight of a self-rocking crib, swathed in cobwebs, from which grabbing phantom hands suddenly emerge … only for Linh to wake with a fright from what turns out to have been merely a haunting nightmare. 

Such imagery is throughout complimented by Sam Chase’s rich and deeply textured cinematography, layering evocative details -- like the House of Usher-style family portraits lining the walls of Sa-Chat, or the estate's imported 1920s furnishings, both of which subliminally remind one of its rootedness in French imperialism -- in a blossoming mantle of atmospheric gloom and shadow seen enveloping the storm-lashed mansion. The estate's mix of east and west influences on its interior design can arguably be seen as a metaphor for the film itself, which has its own mosaic of influences that take on the history and unique geography of the regional setting and use them as the basis for an exercise in pure mainstream genre filmmaking that relies on story beats and filming techniques for its stylistic dressing that are indicative of the popular western forms of cinema its US-raised writer and director grew up on.

The middle section of the film is based around what happens when the estate’s French master, Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud), turns up out of the blue, badly wounded after being ambushed by independence fighters, and in need of urgent medical assistance. He and his family have always insisted that local customs, such as the beliefs and practices of Eastern medicine, be ignored as a matter of principle and, in defence of that stand, Mrs Han forbids the witchcraft-practising cook from administering any of her potions and spells while they wait for a western doctor. However, when Han is called away to visit her sick mother, leaving Linh in charge, the young housemaid feels unable to resist when the Captain’s condition deteriorates to such an extent that death seems certain, and cook persuades her to let her try her own methods as a last resort. Here the film takes a detour away from the suggestive atmospherics of a traditional Gothic ghost story and into areas of more outright fantasy horror, as the cook’s ritualistic spell to accompany her remedies not only facilitates a miraculous recovery in the Captain, but appears also to raise the zombie-like cadaver of Madam Camille from its watery grave! 

This development (as well as the ensuing instances of poltergeist-style activity inside the mansion) at first suggest we are about to be given a straight up rollercoaster ride of spectacle-based horror, but instead the story slows down to become almost exclusively centred on a developing romantic relationship between Laurent and Linh. When the two remaining impediments to the couple embarking upon a full-blown romance – namely the cook and Mr Chu – leave for their annual holiday and hand the house and estate over to the sole care of Linh, she gradually goes from being nurse and carer for Laurent to becoming his lover, which eventually leads her to the role of mistress of the house. By the time a disconcerted Mrs Han and the others have returned, Linh has fully replaced Madam Camille in that role!

Here the film indulges in a minute examination of the shifting power dynamics at play in the relationship, making plain the exploitative aspects inherent to this historical context, and the social obstacles likely to crop up for the two lovers, which are looked at from both sides. When Laurent’s army colleagues visit the estate, they view Linh as almost subhuman; one of them even attempts to rape her – forcing Laurent to stop turning a blind eye to his countrymen’s abuses and put his cards on the table, renouncing his affiliates by kicking the group out in a fury. An even greater choice has to be made when Laurent’s English fiancée Madeline (Rosie Fellner) turns up wishing to resume their broken alliance, which leads to the melodrama of a bitter love rivalry that cuts across both class and racial barriers. 

But other class-related complications occur for Linh, too, when her employer Mrs Han returns, only to find that it is she now who has become the employee, while her former housemaid is now the mistress of the estate and her boss. Both Laurent and Linh have to face the accusation from their respective social peers that they have become “the enemy”, with Linh also having to confront the same predicament as that which once faced her predecessor, when she falls pregnant just as Laurent is about to be called away again to fight. There’s some justification to accusations that the apparent departure from straight ghost story and more upfront horror content for large stretches of the middle section of the film results in a slowness of pace, but the issue of the threat that the relationship poses to Linh’s cultural identity and the questioning of her suitability and authenticity in the role she has been called upon to assume at Sa-Chat is eventually explored through a possession subplot kicked off when Laurent opens up his former wife’s wardrobe to Linh in order to help her look more comfortably the part in her new high-status role.

There is eventually a huge twist to come that makes use of unreliable narrator tricks that are based on an ambiguity that's inherent to the status of the point of view from which we’ve been following these entire events; and the final act turns into something of an Evil Dead styled supernatural bloodbath, as bodies start piling up at the hand of the revenant Madam Camille, while the rotting corpses of the dead also rise up from their plantation ossuary in scenes highly suggestive of similar ones that were depicted in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh-Eaters. Scary pay-offs such as these ensure the film eventually delivers on its early promise, but it will be the fans of more traditional gothic fare who will be most likely to appreciate the thoughtful ruminations that lie at its heart, on the possibilities (or lack thereof) of rapprochement after colonial rule and the privations of war. This is an accomplished feature debut, with strongly committed performances from the small but convincing cast. It’s well worth a watch and is currently available in the UK on the Montage Pictures label, a sub-division of Eureka Entertainment, in a dual format double-disc edition with no extras.  


Saturday, 3 February 2018


 At one point during the final act of Árpád Sopsits’s extremely grim, murkily-lit, based-on-true-events thriller Strangled (A Martfüi Rém), soul-crushed lifer Réti Ákos (Gábor Jászberényi), who has been languishing in jail for the rape and murder of a former girlfriend after his death sentence got commuted to life imprisonment, is marched from his dank prison cell and deposited before the state prosecutor. Here he is informed that, even though recent events may suggest he has been innocent all along of committing the crime for which he has so far served eight years in prison, he is, in fact, as far as the State is concerned, still very much a guilty man. There has been a recent spate of attacks culminating in the murders of several women in the same vicinity as his original “crime of passion” (the remote, semi-industrialised town of Martfü in Hungary), which are considered ultimately to be his responsibility too, despite the fact that he has been behind bars the whole time. Indeed, he shares as much of the blame for the mounting tally of mutilated female corpses (one of which is a child), currently being fished with alarming regularity out of the swampy lake which bounds this remote region of Hungary, as the real killer does. Using the cruel Kafka-esque logic of totalitarianism, the true murderer must have evaded detection all those years ago because Ákos just happened to be the more convenient suspect at a time when the State Police found itself under severe pressure (as it is again now) to get the case cleared up and to have a conviction secured. By succumbing to Police questioning and by making a false confession at the time of the original murder, Ákos has cast doubt on the infallibility of the authorities and on their ability to keep order. You see, these events take place in the year 1964. With Hungary part of the Soviet Eastern Bloc, the Communist authorities at the Hungarian branch of the Party still have to insist publically, for ideological and political reasons, that a serial killer cannot possibly exist in a country under communist rule. The State does not make mistakes.

Despite advertising itself as a true crime thriller based on a notorious case that occurred not long after the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the subsequent Soviet military intervention, Strangled is a taut, crisply shot neo-noir thriller made up of elements instantly recognisable as constituents of that particular subgenre and style from their origins all the way back in the ultra-cynical Hollywood noirs of the 1950s. As the historical narrative unfolds, we recognise a series of familiar tropes: there is the initial miscarriage of justice angle; then the falsely accused man who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and now finds himself ensnared in a web of corruption he cannot untangle; next we get the boozy cynical washed-up cop on the case, passed over for promotion and now reluctantly teamed up with a young upstart protégé who makes political waves for the authorities in pursuing the truth at all costs; and then there is the domestic angle encompassed by the nervy, isolated wife who begins to suspect her husband just might be the local serial killer causing so much misery. Finally, we have the killer himself – an ordinary man, unsuspected by his peers or anyone outside the walls of his own home, but all the time wrestling with increasingly violent urges that lead him to ever more brutal acts of destruction.

There is nothing in the film, in terms of plot, then, that hasn’t been put to productive use in the noir tradition many times before. It is merely the political and social context in which these elements now occur which is different. By enacting in this setting narrative devices traditionally associated with classic Hollywood’s film noir tradition, the film is implicitly denying the ideological claims of Cold War era Communism. It suggests that the State cannot mould human nature and socially engineer away or eliminate its innate drives and pathologies; and that the primitive urges so graphically portrayed throughout this film will find their outlet in disturbed minds whatever system of societal organisation we might choose to implement. Indeed, to deny their potential for agency in the expression of human desire and action, merely for ideological or propagandistic reasons, is to grant them even more destructive power over us.

Strangled plays out like some claustrophobic, enervated nightmare slowly unwinding over decades. The opening scenes condense into ten minutes of screen time the events immediately leading up to the murder of Ákos’s girlfriend in 1957, and cover his subsequent trial and a police re-enactment of the crime. The latter is carried out after a confession is made by Ákos while in police custody. These scenes also convey a sense of just how isolated the town of Martfü actually is. As it is the primary provider of employment in the town the community is almost entirely dependent on the local shoe factory; without it, the town probably wouldn’t exist at all. The streets are near-deserted until the end of the working day, when the entire workforce emerges en masse through the gates of the factory complex, the afternoon winter light dimming with clocking-off time to become a pitchy darkness. 

At this stage the viewer is provided with conflicting signals as to the likelihood of Ákos’s guilt: on his way home after work he catches up, and gets into a heated dispute with, a female co-worker he’s been seeing, for whom he has recently left his wife and son only to find that she has cooled on their relationship, and now wants to break it off. Their altercation is observed by a clandestine watcher, who has also been following this same young woman home from her place of work after scouting the area by motorbike. We cannot clearly see the face of the actual attacker because he is wearing motorcycle goggles. He clubs her to the ground and strips and rapes her in the mulchy undergrowth of the verge, before throttling her to death and dumping the body later that night in a nearby reed-covered lake. When we then crash cut to Ákos re-enacting these events for the police (with a cardboard axe used as the weapon that initially strikes the victim down), we have little reason to doubt his guilt. The police team, led by senior cop Katona Gábor ügyész (Zsolt Trill), push for a guilty verdict at the subsequent trial, but Katona’s sidekick Bóta nyomozó (Zsolt Anger) has some doubts because of inconsistencies in Ákos’s testimony, and about the fact that the supposed weapon used – an axe – has never been found. Also Ákos has a habit of altering the details of his account of the crime with each retelling. These discrepancies are pushed aside by Katona, though, as the Party wants this embarrassing episode disposed of as quickly as possible. Murder and necrophilia are not judged to be a good look for this post-uprising regime, which is attempting to project an image of an ordered and lawful society to its people.

When we check in on the town of Martfü eight years later, in 1964, it is to find that little has changed in the meantime. Everything looks exactly the same as it once did: the shoe factory is still the main employer of the town's meagre population, and Bóta is still a local police detective -- although his former sidekick Katona has been promoted, and is now State Prosecutor. When another sexualised murder of a female employee occurs while on her way home from work at the shoe factory, closely followed by yet another attack on a third young woman who also worked at the same site (but who, this time, survives after being knocked out by a hammer blow to the head and then assaulted, after which she’s left for dead on a railway track, only managing to haul herself off the rails at the last possible second before a speeding train is about to bisect her), a disillusioned and drink-sozzled Bóta finds out that the authorities have drafted in his former partner’s young protégé, supervising prosecutor Szirmai Zoltán (Péter Bárnai), to help him quickly clear up the case. 

Zoltán notices the links to the Ákos case and decides to look again at the original conviction. This opens up a whole extra layer of intrigue and political manoeuvring as Zoltán’s suspicions result in his boss Katana starting to worry that the mistakes and cover-ups of his past are about to resurface and upend his high-status career if it is found during the course of the latest investigation that he sent an innocent man to prison. This prospect looks even more likely when, under pressure from his sister Rita (Zsófia Szamosi), a suicidal Ákos sets out to launch a new appeal against his conviction. A nervy Katana secretly employs detective Juhász (András Réthelyi) -- one of the junior cops helping Bóta and Zoltán investigate the new attacks -- to keep tabs for him on what Zoltán is up to; when he finds out that the latter’s discoveries are leading him closer to the conclusion that Ákos was indeed innocent, he threatens Bóta with the possible release of previously suppressed police surveillance files documenting his involvement in the 1956 Uprising – unless, that is,  Bóta agrees to do everything in his power to hinder Zoltán's current investigations.

This political intrigue and police in-fighting occur against a dour backdrop of suspicion and blame interrupted by occasional bouts of brutal violence and queasy images of sexualised assault, graphically depicted in usually fairly unsparing detail. This is a portrait of a community in crisis and denial, its inhabitants buckling under a clammy and oppressive atmosphere of paranoia that is only enhanced by the increased frequency of the killings and attacks while the ranks of the authorities are closing to protect the failing investigation. The screenplay offers many -- perhaps too many -- side-plots that occur in tandem with the investigation and the political can of worms it threatens to open up. Among these threads is the complicated relationship that develops between Ákos’s sister Rita and the investigating cop Bóta who presided over the flawed interrogation that led to Ákos’s false confession. It is a relationship that is founded on a simmering mixture of resentment (on her part) and guilt (on his), mixed in with an attraction that threatens to spark at any moment into a typically ill-considered and ultimately doomed romance. Meanwhile, the activities of the real killer, a truck driver (Károly Hajduk), who is known to both Rita and her imprisoned brother, continue apace, with the sexual motives behind his violent crimes intensifying and becoming more perverse with each grisly murder. 

One twist to the proceedings during this part of the tale sees the murderer at one point accidentally attacking his own wife, who he mistakes on a darkened street for a prostitute because she wears a wig bought specifically to try and spice up the couple’s moribund love life. She escapes her attacker, but thereafter feels like there was something familiar about him that she can’t quite pin down (a variant of a common trope employed in the gialli of Dario Argento). It takes her the rest of the film to figure out what that is and who, therefore, the killer must be: her feeling of déjà vu turns out to have been caused by the attacker’s laboured breathing, which, she realises, is the same as that of her husband’s during sex!

If all this wasn’t quite enough to be cracking on with, there is also a clear visual signifier being employed in having the innocent Ákos and the unsuspected killer look almost physically identical, setting up a Hitchcockian Wrong Man motif based around an implied transposition of guilt that links the two by contrasting the murderer’s lack of remorse and increasing daring and carelessness in his choice of victim with Ákos’s continued feelings of guilt over the way he had formerly treated the girlfriend who became the first victim of the killer eight years ago. Both men have strained relationships with wives and are remote from their young sons: Ákos because he left his family for another woman and has been in prison ever since, and the killer because in rejecting the moral norms of society in order to pursue his desires he has become detached from family life in general. To bring the symbolic connection to a head the two men actually meet up halfway through the film when the killer, who is an old acquaintance, is shown visiting Ákos in prison, ironically, to offer personal support for his appeal against his conviction! This is where the idea espoused by Katana, and mentioned at the start of this piece, comes in to play: while in the Hitchcock universe it is the Catholic variant of an all-seeing God who has the power to decide who is guilty and who can be punished or forgiven, in communist Hungary it’s the power of the State which makes such decisions of life or death, according to the impenetrable dictates of its internal bureaucracy.

The screenplay suffers from a few too many hanging plot threads that never really develop into anything concrete. It goes to an awful lot of effort, for instance, to lay early emphasis on one of the first victims to survive after experiencing a brutal hammer attack: we wait in suspense to see if she will gain consciousness, and we begin to suspect that the killer has tracked her to the hospital intending to finish the job before she can wake to provide the police with a possible description of him. However, despite the killer actually being provided with a pretext for visiting the ward as a concerned relative of his attacked wife, nothing eventually comes story-wise of this issue, and the surviving victim disappears from the narrative in favour of the above-mentioned plot strands.  

What the film does consistently do well, though, is to capture the suffocating dread and almost subterranean nature of the barren life of drudgery and mundane factory work that provides the social backdrop to the terrible events depicted. It does this with the aid of Gábor Szabó’s take on the neo-noir visual style which relies primarily on shadow-drenched night-time cinematography that serves up a dim colour palette of swampy greens and waterlogged browns filtered through a murky neon half-light. When we are treated to beautifully photographed daytime vistas that reveal the bucolic nature of the forested areas that surround the industrialised regions of the town, they are invariably accompanied by images of untold horrors now no longer obscured by shadows: the stark aftermath of the killer's ferocious violence and sadism. 

The bloated corpses of numerous strangulated female victims, dumped in a lake and later nibbled at by fish, are routinely discovered and examined in forensically sickening detail. This is one of the more surprising elements in a film that reportedly did well commercially in its native land: there is a level of detail in the filming and depiction of the results of a sexualised form of violence carried out against females of all ages that is, even now, rare to see presented this upfront outside the more exploitation-heavy examples of the Italian Giallo. This is a feature that will undoubtedly turn off many casual viewers. I was reminded on numerous occasions of similarly outrageous scenes from the 1980s that can be found in works such as the notorious The New York Ripper by Lucio Fulci, and in Camillo Teti’s The Killer is Still Among Us. As is also the case with the latter example, the violence reaches a crescendo of misogynist disgust with the final murder to be shown in the film, by which point the killer has become so inured to the violence he has inflicted on his dying victims that the only way he can experience the former pleasure he used to get from his necrophiliac pastimes is to impose mutilations on the corpse by surgically removing his victim’s breasts after death. 

If you have the stomach for such grim material, Árpád Sopsits has created with Strangled a rigorously professional take on a particularly lurid moment in Hungarian history, packaging it in a digestible thriller format while employing all the tricks redolent of the modern noir form, which includes its tense, robust score by Márk Moldvai and a conclusion that, despite apparently seeing the status quo restored and justice being served, is still as bleak and cynical as any ending in the pantheon of classic noirs. 

The film is now available in the UK on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Eureka Entertainment’s Montage Pictures world cinema sub-label.