It’s been another solid week in cinema here in Chicago. The Chicago International Film Fest wrapped up it’s stellar two week run yesterday. We took a look at Inferno, the latest in Ron Howard’s adaptations of the The Da Vinci Code series, and found it to be forgettable. This weekend is Halloween and you can catch a free screening of Friday the 13th tonight at Northerly Island or see the modern 1999 version of The Mummy tomorrow night at the Music Box.
This week saw the release of several good films that should be on your radar. Let’s talk about them.
The novel on which director Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden is based is Sarah Waters’s “Fingersmith,” a literary descendant of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” set in Victorian-era London about a group of abandoned children who are trained by a professional scoundrel to fleece the rich, using every trick in the book from pickpocketing to far longer and more sinister cons. Park and co-writer Seo-Kyung Chung have transformed 1800s England to 1930s Korea, in the period of Japanese occupation, when passing for Japanese—or at least speaking the language fluently—was considered a benefit among many native Koreans.
The Handmaiden is told in three sections, the second and third of which, I can tell you virtually nothing about without ruining some exceptionally clever writing. What can be said is that these later sections revisit a great deal of what is laid out in the first but from a different perspective that makes you question nearly everything we’re already learned. And like many of director Park’s previous works (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, Thirst, Stoker), there is a taste for revenge and comeuppance on display that borders on masterful and certainly is quite delicious when served ice cold.
The mastermind of a scheme to relieve Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) of her vast fortune from under the nose of her domineering Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) belongs to Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha from The Yellow Sea), who maintains a stable of young street urchins to do his criminal bidding. But for this particular confidence trick, he selects Sook-Hee (relative newcomer Tae Ri Kim) whom he trains in the ways of a lady’s maid in order for her to get hired by Lady Hideko and slowly become her confidante. Although the Count has given Sook-Hee all the ammunition she needs to talk him up to her Ladyship, something unexpected happens between the two women as they bond, and they begin to have feelings for each other that could be the beginnings of a love affair, throwing something of a wrench into the Count’s carefully worked out scam.
Over the course of The Handmaiden’s journey, it shifts from being a film about the making of a false love to a tale of a very real one between these exquisitely drawn characters who both have issues with identity. Another common theme in several of Park’s other movies is a fixation on unusual or unsavory sexual practices, and we come to discover that the Uncle has been grooming Hideko to perform a very precise and strange fetish ritual that is impossible to explain—you just have to witness it and resist being seduced in the process.
The secret heroes of the film are Park’s constant cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (who also did Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, as well as the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s It) and costume designer Sang-gyeong Jo, who has the enviable task of creating some of the most vivid wearable artwork you’ll see all year, blending traditional Korean and Japanese fashion with more modern outfits that would have come over from visiting Westerners.
As for the mysterious second and third sections of The Handmaiden, all you need to know is that Park doubles down on the cliché that nothing is as it seems. We get a glimpse inside an insane asylum, some rather nasty torture devices are brought out of storage, and things that were mildly sexy in the first act get even sexier and more erotic. And the film doesn’t stop at being simply a psychosexual thriller; it has a wicked sense of humor and reveals some absolutes about sex, which is that it can unlock inhibitions in the best and worst ways imaginable. For every example of awakening sexuality being a force for good in someone’s life, we see it pervert and prove harmful to another. This is easily Park’s most sexually charged work, which is a good thing, since his focus seems to be on making sure the women get theirs before the men are even considered.
The Handmaiden is ambitious, hypnotic and elegantly constructed, even with all of its countless twists and misdirections. And as much as the film is about good people attempting to exit this scenario intact, the greater pleasure from watching this is seeing those that would harm slowly lose their power over others until they are empty husks that were once human beings.
It’s an astonishing achievement that should not only been seen, but viewed on the biggest screen you can find. And those of us in Chicago are fortunate in that regard, since the film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
“Who is you?”
It’s a question that comes late in the new film from writer-director Barry Jenkins’s hypnotic and emotionally exposed Moonlight, but it’s also at the core of the entire three-act tale of a man named Chiron, growing up black, gay and largely abandoned by his drug-addicted mother in Miami. For all the right reasons, Moonlight is a tough film to categorize. It’s more about expression, identity, those who influence us (for better and worse) as we grow older, and ultimately it transforms—almost without us realizing it—into a deeply moving love story.
The structure of the film (based on an un-produced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney) is important. It focused on three moments in time in Chiron’s life, and in each segment, he’s played by a different actor. In the first section, Chiron is nicknamed “Little” (played by first-time actor Alex Hibbert) and he is bullied badly for being different just as he himself is understanding that something is unique about him. There are other recurring characters, including his hardworking but distant mother (played by Naomie Harris, best known to American audiences as the current Moneypenny in the recent James Bond films), who begins the film as being on the cusp of her hard drug use. In the middle section, she’s a hardcore addict; in the last, she’s in recovery, so in a sense Harris is playing three separate women in Moonlight, each one sharing qualities but startlingly different when it comes to interactions with her son.
Another character played by three actors is that of Kevin, Chiron’s best friend, who betrays him in the middle section (set in their high school years) by joining in with a group of boys beating Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) mercilessly, just moments after the two had an intense first sexual encounter together. It might be the most heartbreaking moment in any American film this year and Jenkins (whose previous film was 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy) lets the moment linger, forcing us to not just see the moment but also feel it to our core.
In the first two segments of the film, young Chiron is taken under the wing of the local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali of “House of Cards” and “Luke Cage”) and his equally kind wife Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe, also a first-time actor doing remarkable work). The couple end up feeding and housing the boy when he’s locked or thrown out of his own house and become his de facto guardians during his formative years. Chiron has tough questions about Juan’s work, but the relationship is one of the few good things in the boy’s life, and we presume that they also help guide Chiron into understanding both what his sexual preference is and that he must keep that hidden, at least for a time.
The final portion of Moonlight jumps ahead to Chiron in his mid-20s, now a buff, well-tailored dealer in Atlanta named Black (Trevante Rhodes), who gets an unexpected call from Kevin (André Holland of Selma, “The Knick” and the current season of “American Horror Story”) seeking to make amends for turning his back on Chiron in school. Chiron has become a quiet man, somewhat unapproachable, while Kevin has clearly had an awakening of who he really is and has become as soulful, easy-to-talk-to chef. Their scenes together, which essentially take place in two locations with a drive in between, feel like a one-act play of conversation, revelation and truth telling that sends shockwaves through Chiron’s entire being (and ours, if we’re being real).
The fact that Moonlight as a film even exists is impressive; but that it’s as near-perfect a film as you’ll see all year is miraculous. Director Jenkins allows the emotions to build up in his characters and audience for two-thirds of the movie, and then gives us a place and reason to unload them in the third act. He cares about these characters so deeply and with such unbridled compassion that it feels as if Jenkins has been making movies for decades. There’s a wisdom and vision at work that is unparalleled, and not just in the film’s themes, but in its beautifully captured images. Considering Jenkins is making a film about influencing young lives, I hope young people see Moonlight and allow it to, in some way, be freeing as well. It’s a work that has the power to do just that.
If you go into Moonlight thinking it’s a “gay film” or a “black film” or a “coming-of-age film,” you’re doing yourself an immense disservice. It’s all of those and so much more. Jenkins has opted not to make his movie some type of gritty take on urban living; Moonlight is a gorgeous film (courtesy of cinematographer James Laxton), using reflective color in ways usually reserved for more surreal cinema. Moonlight is a true tale of awakening that isn’t about celebrating who you really are; it’s more about accepting it, letting it sink in, and living with it, perhaps for the first time in your life.
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bete)
I’m guessing that by now you’re familiar with the story, whether it’s from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s original fairy tale or the sublime 1946 film telling by Jean Cocteau or Disney’s Oscar-nominated animated musical from 1991, which is now being remade into a live-action feature set for release in March 2017. Even with all of these exceedingly fine tellings of the story, it would still be a shame for you to miss this exceptional 2014 French production that is just now hitting the U.S. with a limited release.
From the heightened cinematic mind of Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Silent Hill), this Beauty and the Beast stars Léa Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color, The Lobster) as Belle, the woman who becomes a willing prisoner of Beast (Vincent Cassel of Black Swan and this year’s Jason Bourne) in order to save her family. Very much an updated version of Cocteau’s film, but in vivid color and enhanced with wild special effects and stunning production design, this telling also included a more fleshed-out backstory for Beast (which is a tad unnecessary, but does attempt to explain Beast’s inherent sadness) and more of a central role for Belle’s father (the fantastic André Dussollier) and Belle’s apparently endless supply of siblings, who ultimately attempt to rescue her right at the moment Belle begins to fall in love with Beast.
Seydoux is the real reason to see Beauty and the Beast. As much as she is known for more sexually liberated works in recent years, her range is put to the test in attempting to make fairy-tale dialogue feel natural and grown up. There’s no getting around the fact that the vast (and clearly artificial) landscapes that serve as the backdrop for the story are sometimes laughably rendered, but it seems clear that Gans is embracing the heightened reality even more so than the Disney film. I especially enjoyed beefing up Beast’s more animal-like qualities as he chases Belle through his immense castle.
Not surprisingly, the film is at its best when it focuses on the primary pairing of Belle and Beast. Added storylines involving her family and another about a scarred bandit who attempts to interfere in Belle’s rescue are unnecessary distractions, but when Gans locks in on his leads, Beauty and the Beast soars like few other live-action fairy tale movies have in recent years.
The film opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.