The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois. Part 1 is here. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6.
Today features two splendidly twisty, darkly admirable offerings. Kôji Fukada’s Harmonium (淵に立つ – Fuchi Ni Tatsu) (Japan, 2016), set in the present day, starts out following the style of middle-class family dramas so prevalent in Japanese cinemas in the 40s and 50s. But later writers and filmmakers, from Nagisa Oshima, the Art Theater Guild and Seijun Suzuki to Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano, took delight in subverting those narrative outlines to explore the psychological extremities beneath all of that. Fukada joins this company with the story of a normal hardworking family, a mysterious stranger returned from the past, and the horrific bottom that drops out from under their contented lives. The film isn’t nearly as explicit as many of these can be, but there’s certainly an element of j-horror-inspired anxiety, even in the absence of actual ghosts, coupled with some film noir karma’s-a-bitch irony and a nonsense ending that somehow makes perfect sense nonetheless. Another small film that I hope gets good distribution – I really liked this one a lot.
Harmonium will be shown on Sunday, October 23rd at 5:30 pm and Monday the 24th at 8:45 pm.
Park Chan-wook’s superb gothic melodrama The Handmaiden (아가씨 – Agassi) will get a regular run at the Music Box next week, but since you’ll be watching the World Series, it’s probably best to catch these early screenings. This is one of those ‘sooner-the-better’ films, trust me.
Park has taken Sarah Waters’ Dickensian U.K. novel Fingersmith and transposed it to 1930’s Korea; Korea had been under Japanese rule and occupation since 1910, and that sense of bridging hierarchies and cultures between colonized Korea and the entitled Japanese empire is an intriguing new foundation. The film starts with an elaborate swindle; our protagonist, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) will pose as the maid to Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the niece of an extraordinarily wealthy book collector, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) in order to convince her to marry her con-man partner-in-crime, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), whom will then commit her to an asylum forever and abscond with her inheritance.
All, of course, does not go to plan – in fact, there are some jawdropping plot twists and shifts of context that take five-or-ten minutes to settle into; they’re that surprising, that disruptive and ingeniously well-executed. This is also a very erotic film, which is to say to some that it’s kind of a dirty movie, so you can decide for yourself whether that recommends it or dissuades you. A valuable bar has been raised with the advent of Blue Is The Warmest Color (2014), and this film is example #1. There are a few instances where the lurid displaces the logical, but overall this is an amazing film that may be Park Chan-wook’s mid-career masterpiece.
The Handmaiden will screen on Sunday, October 23rd at 8:15 pm and Tuesday the 25th at 8:30 pm.