According to my local ultra-conservative facebook group, the grossest thing about this movie is its portrayal of homosexuality. Happy pride month?
So this review was basically just a ruse so I can plug a different movie I liked it but didn’t get around to writing about, The Handmaiden. Narratively speaking, it and The Perfection are kinda the same movie. Ok not that far, but they at least have the same plot beats: love story between two female leads, themes of abuse and exploitation, revenge, twists, magic drugs, and, of course, sex. Except one’s actually good and the other was purchased for distribution by Reed. So without spoiling The Handmaiden too much, let’s do some comparing.
Most of my complaints with The Perfection condense to this: this movie is too goddamn short. I’m not saying I necessarily wanted more The Perfection, but compared to The Handmaiden (which was almost twice as long), the amount of actual development in this movie was really sparse. The entire thing feels far too rushed, like the writers were trying to speedrun their own script. Plot points just kinda happen, one after the next, with no breathing room to digest or evaluate whether they make sense (spoiler alert: they don’t). Like yeah The Handmaiden is definitely a slow burn, but this movie is like setting off fireworks 2 inches from your face: flashy, sure, but probably not a great idea.
The basic story of The Perfection is thus: Charlotte, a former cello prodigy who moved back home to take care of her sick mom, comes to Shanghai to reunite with her former mentors, Anton and Paloma. She meets Lizzie, the newest rising Cello star. The two quickly hit it off: first bonding over their mutual admiration of each others’ cello abilities, then over watching middle aged Chinese people cheat on their spouses. After having sex in a hotel room, Lizzie invites Charlotte to join her on a trip around China. They set off, but Lizzie immediately falls ill, throwing up maggots and smashing her head against a window until the bus driver throws them out. After walking on the side of the road for a bit, Charlotte offers her a cleaver, and Lizzie chops her own hand off.
A rewinded version of the sequence shows Charlotte slipping Lizzie some meds that induce hallucinations. She makes casual references to bugs throughout the trip, inception-ing the idea into Lizzie’s mind, culminating in the amputation scene. In the present, a now-handless Lizzie returns to Bachoff (Anton and Paloma’s cello academy), where the two promptly tell her to “back off.” Lizzie, having a newfound thirst for vengeance, sneaks into Charlotte’s house, tazes her, puts her in a trunk, and takes her back to Bachoff. Charlotte reveals that she had made Lizzie cut off her hand as a way of “saving” her from Anton, whose academy doubled as a weird cello-themed cult, where failure to play “The Perfection” (getting a full combo) would result in students getting raped.
Anton forces Charlotte to play the cello, but she messes up. The other teachers prepare to rape her, with Lizzie’s assistance, but drop dead. Lizzie and Charlotte had actually been working together, and the entire thing was an elaborate double-cross. They kill Paloma, and make their way to Anton. He takes both of them at once, managing to cut Charlotte’s arm off, but Lizzie knocks him out with a fire poker. The last scene shows Anton with his limbs removed, sitting in front of the two women playing a cello, each with one hand.
Let’s talk about “twists.” Both movies have similar executions for their reveals. But in The Handmaiden they’re usually a) actually surprising, and b) actually worked into the story. This isn’t even about “plot holes,” Charlotte’s scheme is generally one of the dumbest sequences I’ve seen in movies. Despite apparently having the intention of poisoning Lizzie and cutting her hand off, she steals a cleaver from some random street vendor right before they leave, and googles how to make a tourniquet after she gets on the bus. I’m all for last minute preparations, but I feel like if your entire plan is “cut someone and then bandage them,” you should at least be ready to do those two things.
Not to mention, the whole set-up is completely ridiculous. Apparently, she dosed Lizzie with the meds (along with alcohol), in order to take advantage of their side effects. But the only reason they work so well is that Lizzie demands more of them after already getting onto the bus. And how could Charlotte be sure that the drugs would affect Lizzie enough to the point of being susceptible to significant persuasion, but not so much that she’d pass out or die. I mean Lizzie does break a window open with her head at one point, I feel like she could’ve very easily knocked herself out. Plus the fact that getting everything in motion rested on Lizzie being attracted to women, and more specifically to Charlotte, which are some pretty big assumptions about someone you’ve never met.
The Handmaiden, as mentioned, also has twists, but they add to the movie’s narrative, rather than detract from it. There’s kind of a Fight Club effect, where the reveal recontextualizes and explains a lot of odd details or idiosyncrasies that came up earlier. More than anything, it makes for a satisfying viewing experience, which The Perfection does not deliver on.
As mentioned, The Perfection is a “psychological thriller horror film.” Now this might just be a me thing, but I think psychological thrillers generally only work if there’s investment on the part of the audience into the character(s) whose psychology is being thrilled. This movie fails to attain that, mainly because it doesn’t actually have characters.
I saw people online claiming that this movie is exploitative towards victims of abuse, and I can certainly see the argument. Literally the only thing you learn about Charlotte or Lizzie, other than the fact they play cello, is that they were victims of Anton’s delusional molestation-cult. Anton, the grand villain for whom the whole revenge arc is orchestrated, lacks any semblance of depth. You go from learning that the dude teaches cello, to learning that he teaches cello in between raping students in his basement recital hall.
The movie shows a hint of having a theme when Anton mentions that all the instructors were educated in the same manner, implying that the abuse was perpetuated across generations, but it’s never brought up again. You could maybe argue that The Perfection parallels the recent college gymnast sexual assault scandals, or the Catholic church pedophile rings. And while it might, it also completely misses the point. Making the whole syndicate of abuse into some mystified pseudo-religion instead of plainly manipulative power dynamics removes the element of realism in favor of justifying this movie’s contrived narrative.
Child abuse comes up in The Handmaiden’s story, but it serves primarily to flesh out characters and (partially) give them motivations, rather than act as their only defining characteristic. So there are definitely ways of working things like that into a story in a reasonably respectful way, this movie just doesn’t.
Probably this movie’s strong suit, and the closest it got to achieving The Handmaiden level quality was in its presentation. The whole rewind bit mid-action was cute, even though Austrian kino man did already do it (twice). There were also a few cool shots with the camera spinning upside down, which I’m assuming has some sort of surface-level relevance to “character development.”
On the other hand, they did use what is probably the worst shot in all of movies:
And then proceed to fuck up the 180 degree rule.
All in all the movie looked decent, although nothing came close to the tree scene from The Handmaiden. Going back to the pacing issue, the movie also gave itself absolutely no time for establishing(s) and visual storytelling. The closest it got was the opening scene, showing Charlotte’s mother passing away, but once the movie got going, all the focus went into making the audience uncomfortable (or aroused, if you’re into bug stuff).
I think that for movies where music plays a big role, the music should probably play a big role. Look at Whiplash, or A Star is Born, and you can tell that a lot of thought went into composing, as it should have. To its credit, The Perfection does have some cello music, mainly near the beginning, which sounds reasonably nice. But then you get to the last scene, where Lizzie and Charlotte are playing “the perfection” together. On paper, this should be fairly poetic: the two have united as one, overcoming their respective hardships and reclaiming the instrument that was once a symbol of their abuse.
Except THERE’S NO FUCKING CELLO. There isn’t even anything resembling cello. For reasons beyond my comprehension, the filmmakers chose to insert this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=26&v=JDSpcJTb3sc instead. I have nothing against Hole or Chromatics, but this was such a baffling note (heh) to end the movie on. And the contrast between it and the visuals, which are pretty grotesque and convey a more serious tone, meant that the whole thing kinda fizzles out. On top of that, a few preceding scenes incorporate this “fight the power” type rap song that I guess is supposed to represent Charlotte’s reclamation of power, but ends up just being dumb. None of these are necessarily bad choices, but they acted as a bizarre tonal shift from whatever else was happening.
The Perfection is an interesting film which prioritized shock value over coherence. While I have to give the writers props for creativity, they simply tried to do too much in too little time. Building a satisfying revenge arc requires patience. The Count of Monte Cristo is long as fuck, but it’s also actually good. If the book had been about Edmond Dantes getting out of prison and immediately murdering all the people who put him there, I don’t think it would’ve been received quite as well. If you are willing to put some time into watching a movie with a good payoff, I would highly recommend The Handmaiden (available for streaming on Amazon Prime at the time of me writing this). Or, y’know, what whatever you want. But don’t blame me when your tinder date leaves because all the “self-harm” and “sexual violence” and “cello music” is making them uncomfortable.
Good for: People who disliked playing instruments as kids and want to feel vindicated
Bad for: Anyone who watches this over Park Chan-Wook’s masterpiece, Oldboy
3.6/8 (7.2 for The Handmaiden)