Hidden identities. Films reviewed: Made in France, Moonlight, The Handmaiden
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Hallowe’en weekend is a time of mysteries and hidden identities. If you want to stay home and shiver, there’s a new movie streaming channel called shudder.com that only does the scary. Everything from Japanese horror, to low budget slashers, to classics like Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. (And don’t miss The Editor, the hilarious spoof of 1970s Italian giallo horror.) But if you want to head out, there are some great movies opening in Toronto. This Hallowe’en, no monsters; instead I am looking at hidden identities. There’s a shy Korean maid who’s actually a con artist, a French terrorist who’s actually an undercover journalist, and a black kid in 90s Miami, whose sexual identity is a secret… even to himself.
Made in France
Dir: Nicolas Boukhrief
Sam (Malik Zidi) is a red-bearded, freelance journalist, the son of an Algerian dad and a French Marxist mom. To research a story, he attends a radical mosque that holds meetings in a metal-gated storage locker. There he meets three other French men. Christophe (Francois Civil) is a rich Catholic guy who sees himself as a gangsta, like Tony Montano in Scarface. Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed) is a tough boxer, radicalized while in prison for drug offences. Sidi (Ahmed Drame) is a good son, whose African cousin was killed by French soldiers in Mali. Ironically, only Sam, the undercover journalist, has any religious training or can speak Arabic.
They fall under the command of a mysterious man named Hassan (Dimitri Storoge). His motives are a secret. He says he trained at a bootcamp in Pakistan and is in contact with a terrorist group. Sam is married with a kid, and is staying in a flop house to keep them safe. But when he reports his story to the police, they threaten him with prison unless he stays with the cel and finds out who their “big boss” is. Can he survive life with this ragtag gang and the sinister Hassan? And will innocent people die in the process?
Made in France is a tight thriller told from the point of view of would-be homegrown terrorists. It has never been screened there, for obvious reasons – it was made just before the terrible Charlie Hebdo shootings and postponed again following the Bataclan massacre. But it still stands up as a good crime thriller.
Wri/Dir: Barry Jenkins
Chiron is a small, shy kid who lives in a mainly black neighbourhood in 1990s Miami. He is relentlessly bullied after school, with his crack-head mom never there to defend him. Juan (Mahershala Ali, Luke Cage) comes to his rescue when he sees the kid chased into an abandoned building. He takes him home where his wife feeds and comforts him. But Chiron remains completely silent, not trusting himself to speak. Juan vows to be his protector and serves as his mentor, teaching him to swim at the local beach. The boy views him in awe and adulation. Ironically, Juan is the neighbourhood drug kingpin, the one supplying the crack that’s destroying his mother.
Chiron is relentlessly bullied and beaten up. Only one friend, Kevin, shows any affection. He can’t understand why he lets other kids beat him up, and call him the “F” word. He gradually matures, but is always drawn back to that stretch of moonlit beach where he formed and later expressed his sexual identity.
Moonlight is a superb coming-of-age drama, portrayed by mainly unknown black actors. It’s moving and surprising. The gradually-paced, subtle story is told in three chapters: as kid, adolescent and adult (wonderfully played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes)
Chiron goes through a troubled childhood, an explosion in high school, adopting an unexpected persona as a grown-up. But in each section he revisits his declining mother, his unreliable best friend Kevin, and that stretch of moonlit beach. Fantastic film, brilliantly told.
Dir: Chan-Wook Park
It’s 1930s Korea. Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) is a shy handmaiden who lives in a grotesque mansion run by a fabulously rich Japanese baron. Hired for her Japanese ability, she works for an uptight heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee). Imperial Japan annexed Korea in 1910, and is now trying to Japanize the entire country. When a suitor arrives seeking the Lady’s hand in marriage, Sook-hee serves as her confidant. The dashing Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo) has swept her off her feet and promises a wonderful life in Japan. But Sook-Hee seems to have fallen hopelessly in love with her naïve mistress, and wants to school her in the Sapphic arts. This love triangle spells trouble.
But wait! Nothing is quite what it seems. All the players in this drama are actually Korean speakers. Uncle Kouzuki is a nouveau riche Korean robber baron who invested his money in Japanese erotic books. His proper niece reads them aloud to a select crowd of well-paying gentlemen. Meanwhile, both Sook-Hee and the Count belong to a Korean street gang of pickpockets and con artists, who, in a complex scheme, have infiltrated the mansion to defraud them of their millions. Jealousy, lust romance and deceit swirl around this strange foursome. But who’s fooling whom?
Based on Sarah Waters’ Dickinsian novel, The Handmaiden is a fun, sexual romp relocated from Victorian England to prewar Korea. With trapezes, bondage, marionettes, even tentacles, this movie is a total perv-fest. The story is told and retold from the point of view of the three characters. But far from a lesson in lesbian politics, the movie seems told from a male perspective, its twisted plot serving mainly as a vehicle for the audience’s sexual titillation.
Made in France is playing tonight as part of the Cinefranco International Film Festival. Go to cinefranco.com for details. Moonlight and The Handmaiden both open today in Toronto: check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.