Arthouse Analysis: The Handmaiden and Moonlight Reviews
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    As October surely turns into November, awards season is among us. And if you’ve been tired of all of the disappointing summer blockbusters, you’ll be happy to know that some great indie films just dropped at Cinemark that you should go check out.

    Moonlight Review - Andrew Stern

    Moonlight is a lot like Boyhood, except its focus is not on cinema’s most overrepresented group – the white male.

    Although the film’s previews might lead to some confusion as to what the movie is actually about, Moonlight’s structure is pretty straightforward. The story surrounds an African-American man named Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Aston Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) as he navigates through three pivotal moments of his life. Transitioning from youth to adolescence to adulthood in a three-act structure, Moonlight is a character study about the people surrounding Chiron.

    Not only is the movie about Chiron discovering and accepting his queer sexuality, but the film deals with issues of masculinity, identity and addiction culture. So while Chiron’s desire for intimacy plays a big role in the movie, Moonlight is not just a movie about a gay relationship. Perhaps this is why the film still seems authentic, despite the fact that director Barry Jenkins is not queer, but an ally to the LGBT community.

    With this in mind, Moonlight seems more like a character study for Miami, the film’s location, than the film’s main character. Although the story follows Chiron as he continues to grow, the people surrounding Chiron are the one’s who get most of the attention (and dialogue). Between Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris), an old mentor (Mahershala Ali) and an intimate friend (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland), the movie creates such a rich background for its star that the main character doesn’t even need all that much development.

    Based on the shelved play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell McCraney, this authenticity spreads into the film’s dialogue. Jenkins has highlighted that there is no code switching within the film – the dialogue is spoken as it is in Miami – and the actors all live in the city. Because of this, the dialogue seems incredibly genuine and realistic.

    To be honest, the film doesn’t really even need dialogue (and you may lose a line or two, if you’re not used to the way Miami natives speak). Much of Moonlight involves actors looking dramatically at one another. And while that doesn’t necessarily sound all that interesting, it actually is because there is so much that is conveyed with every shot. The actors have such piercing gazes that the audience is able to project their own thoughts and insecurities onto the characters.

    All of this is not to mention that Moonlight has an incredibly unique visual style. The film is shot with a very shallow depth-of-field and large aperture, leading to a very sensitive sense of space. This is only heightened by the deep contrast between the beautiful imagery and horrific actions happening on screen. And because each of the three sequences take place in a radically different time in Chiron’s life, each sequence is shot on a different film stock, creating a constantly evolving visual narrative.

    At times, Moonlight can seem like a coming-of-age horror film. While the movie ultimately focuses on growth, and the imagery is quite beautiful, there is a certain stillness that seems to imply something sinister is about to happen. While there are no jump scares, there is certainly a lot of catharsis by the end of the film. Moonlight might not be a flashy, in-your-face, tears-and-screaming-to-the-max type of movie, but it will certainly leave an impression.

    The Handmaiden Review - David Gordon

    A captivating ride of plot twists, romance, and drama, The Handmaiden enthralls its audience in every second of its lengthy runtime. Although its transgressive content may narrow its audience, those who choose to engage with this film will discover a gem with one of the most compelling narratives of this year thus far.

    Originally adapted from Fingersmith, a historical crime novel by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is the latest drama by director Park Chan-Wook, the mind behind Oldboy and Stoker. The opening of the film depicts marching soldiers and bawling children, leading the audience to expect a dramatic and tragic coming-of-age story of a young handmaiden leaving home for the mansion of a wealthy lord. Yet the film unveils itself as something more complex when the maid (Kim Tae-ri) reveals herself to the audience as an agent of a master con man (Ha Jung-woo) who plans on tricking the lady of the mansion (Kim Min-hee) out of her fortune by marrying her. However, this scheme becomes complicated when the maid instantly falls in love with the lady of the mansion, inciting a battle of duplicity and manipulation between all three parties.

    Never has Park Chan-Wook’s cinematographic style been more expressive. Walls, windows and trees constantly separate characters from one another, suggesting their inability to know each other’s true intentions. Similar borders often distance characters from the camera itself, just as the constant plot twists prevent the audience from ever knowing the truth behind any character. The deliberate, sweeping camera movements over beautiful costumes and through the elaborate central mansion are fascinating, highlighting every actor movement and the full scale of the sets.

    Although the style of The Handmaiden alone justifies its mesmerizing effect, the narrative structure and pacing allow Park Chan-Wook to manipulate his audience at every turn. In every narrative revelation, Park Chan-Wook shifts the sympathies of his audience for or against certain characters, only to reverse those rapports in the next twist. Every time the audience feels they have a firm grasp of a character, a new twist will force them to think in a different direction and consider more context as they evaluate the character. This constantly challenges the audience to figure out the motivations of each character, keeping the film compelling throughout.

    However, some of the content itself will certainly unsettle particular viewers. The occasional graphic scene of physical intimacy never approaches gratuity, but the amount of skin on display may give a few viewers pause. Nearly every male character exhibits some form of sexual deviancy, always including sexual violence. This violence supplements the story, but sensitive viewers may have to look away.

    Among many films dealing with sexual violence and toxic relationships (The Girl on the Train, Crimson Peak, The Gift), The Handmaiden provides a refreshing approach by giving its female characters agency. Although the male characters attempt to entrap them, the handmaiden and her lady manage rebel against patriarchal society in a film that is both timely and timeless.


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