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Knight at the Movies: Moonlight; The Handmaiden
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2016-10-26

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In my 12-and-a-half years as film critic for Windy City Times, I cannot recall another instance of what is happening this weekend at your local cinema: not one, but two, examples of superlative LGBT films are opening in Chicago.

Okay: I know a certain team is in the World Series ( yes! ) but, pre- or post-game, please do make time for these movies. Moonlight, from director Barry Jenkins, is an unexpected breakthrough that is no less than a game-changer while Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden is a breathtaking ratification of the South Korean's protean talents. It's a very heady combination; a one-two punch that raises the bar for queer cinema in fundamental ways.

Moonlight is based on "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," a never-produced story by the Black gay playwright/actor Tarrell Alvin McCraney ( a Steppenwolf company member ). Jenkins has directed and adapted McCraney's story for the screen which focuses on a young Black boy, Chiron. Chiron's life is seen in three defining stages—as the quiet, watchful boy we first encounter, as the cautious teen eager to fit in and as a life-scarred man in his 20s. The film is split into these three sections with a trio of actors—Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes—playing Chiron.

When we first encounter Chiron in sunny Miami in the 1980s, he's in flight, running away from bullies who have sniffed out what they discern is his innate gayness. Chiron's tough single mother, Paula ( the luminous Naomie Harris ), has sniffed it out, too, and when push comes to shove, lets him have it. Trapped on all sides, Chiron finds an unexpected ally in Juan ( Mahershala Ali ), a local drug lord who shares a home with his girlfriend Teresa ( a warm and sympathetic Janelle Monae ). The unusually tolerant and respectful Juan suspects but never pushes the truth and, under his guidance, the boy begins to blossom—until, in the most terrible of ironies, Chiron discovers that his mother is one of Juan's customers.

The nearly mute boy morphs into the sullen, skinny teen who has become an expert at fitting in and deflecting the psychological blows from his now drug-addled mother. An unexpected physical encounter one moonlit night on the beach with his best friend, Kevin, opens up a world of possibilities—that is quickly quashed by circumstances.

When we last meet Chiron as a twentysomething adult, the hulking, muscular man we encounter is barely recognizable to us. Jenkins leaves it to us to intuit much of what has taken place in the ensuing years as Chiron decides on a whim to track down Kevin ( played as an adult by Andre Holland ), who is now working in a diner in Georgia. Their encounter—and a visit with his mother—brings to light the tremendous cost Chiron has paid as he has struggled to come to terms with his sexuality and what it means to be a man in our fragmented society. Don't be surprised, my gay brethren and sisters of every stripe, if this final scene between Chiron and Kevin doesn't find you weeping tears of bittersweet recognition—as it did me.

For Chiron ( or for the audience ), there are to be no easy answers and no easy summation to neatly define his coming out and this open-endedness is part of the magic of this expressive masterpiece. Jenkins' method is calm and exacting, and might seem to verge on the stereotypical ( we've seen these circumstances before ) if it weren't for Jenkins' laser-sharp focus.

Moonlight is a deeply lyrical work but unfussy in its approach and the director is helped immeasurably by the stellar performances. In Dee Rees' lovely Pariah, mainstream filmgoers were given glimpses of the interior life of a young Black lesbian and now we have, at long last, its male twin, although Moonlight digs down much deeper. How long have audiences been subconsciously ( and consciously ) been waiting for this kind of sensational film? I can't recall a film since Marlon Riggs' 1989 polemic Tongues Untied that has examined so closely and with such insight the life of a gay Black male. I'm glad, as a queer film fan and critic, that I lived long enough to see this extraordinary movie and what I sincerely hope will be a game-changer for cinema.

Impressive from an altogether different perspective is Park Chan-Wook's sensual thriller The Handmaiden. A period piece that is part potboiler, part thriller and full-on sensual art, Park's movie contains the Hitchcock-influenced set pieces that have becomes this visually dazzling director's signature. ( The unfairly overlooked 2013 movie Stoker, scripted by out writer/actor Wentworth Miller, is my favorite previous example. )

Based on the Victorian set novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Walters but reimagined in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s, the plot concerns a con man who poses as a playboy, Count Fujiwara ( Ha Jung-woo ), who is in the process of wooing a wealthy heiress. The con man hires Sook-hee ( Kim Tae-ri ), a pickpocket from the provinces who he trains to pose as a handmaiden for the object of his con: the lovely and fragile Lady Hideko ( Kim Min-hee ). Sook-hee is tasked with convincing Lady Hideko to fall in love with the count and marry him instead of her overbearing uncle, handing her vast fortune over to the con man in the process.

The fly in the ointment turns out to be Sook-hee, whose ardor for Lady Hideko—and vice versa—is palpable from the moment the two women first encounter one another when the handmaiden arrives to take on her duties. The intrigue and tremendously erotic subterfuge that follows is quintessential Park. Madness, violence, plenty of plot twists ( don't tell! ) and a battery of silken close-ups follow ( and there's a plenty hot romance between the two women to boot ). The Handmaiden is ravishing cinema that calls attention—gorgeously—to itself every step of the way.


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