Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden has the look of an elegant period piece. Elaborate mansion interiors frame stoic characters dressed to the nines in suave suits and bright-hued dresses. But don't be fooled; underneath all that silk and manners is a sweaty film noir that has no problem getting nasty.
Set during the early 20th century when Japan annexed Korea, Park's latest involves a young thief named Sookhee (Kim Tae-ri) recruited by her corrupt overlord Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to help con fragile Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) out of her vast fortune.
With films such as Old Boy and Stoker, Park has shown a previous fondness for subverting time and perspective. The Handmaiden's serpentine narrative, which often folds onto itself to reveal plot twists from new angles, is similarly elastic. Characters shift alliances as often as they change outfits. Sexual urges lie quietly in the shadows until they are expressed in melodramatic fashion. Insanity and arousal are often confused for one another.
As a game of seductive subterfuge, the film is constantly upping the ante. Despite how things might seem, characters thrive in pockets of moral and sexual quicksand. For them solid ground doesn't exist, and no matter how alone you feel someone is always watching. Those who understand this best end up stealing the prized social standing and physical "release" so thoroughly desired by everyone involved.
Park co-opts sensual soft-core lore of old to enact revenge on power hungry men (the audience included) who would get off feeling dominant over the fairer sex. The Handmaiden, which opens Friday, Oct. 28, ultimately provides a safe space for women to reclaim imagery associated with kinky male fantasies and turn them into something intimate, all on their own terms. Park's film may be silly and slight, but it often strikes the right nerve.
Aquarius: Sônia Braga stars as a retired music critic who faces intimidation from an aggressive construction company attempting to purchase her apartment in an old building primed for demolition. Opens Friday, Oct. 28, at Angelika Film Center Carmel Mountain.
Arab Film Festival: The 5th annual event presents feature narratives, documentaries, and short films that focus on promoting the understanding of issues involving the Arab and Islamic world. Runs Thursday, Oct. 27, to Sunday, Oct. 30, at Museum of Photographic Arts.
Girl Asleep: In Rosemary Myers’ comedy, a 15-year-old girl struggles to hang on to her childhood memories as she ventures closer to adulthood. Opens Friday, Oct. 28, at the Ken Cinema. Accompanied by the short film Pickle.
Inferno: Tom Hanks reprises his role as Da Vinci Code hero Robert Langdon, the adventure-prone academic who can’t help but uncover many of the world’s vast conspiracies. Co-starring Felicity Jones.
The Free World: An ex-con gets involved with a married woman in this drama starring Elisabeth Moss and Octavia Spencer. Screens through Thursday, Nov. 3, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
The Handmaiden: Park Chan-wook’s sultry tale of revenge and sexual urges involves a coy handmaiden who is hired to con a wealthy woman out of her fortune.
One Time Only
Beetlejuice: Michael Keaton is legit cray as the ghostly meddler in Tim Burton’s horror comedy. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
The Imitation Game: This forum on the work of noted WWII code-cracker Alan Turing will feature a community discussion and presentation of the Oscar-nominated biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27, at Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas.
Psycho: On the run after stealing a bag full of money, a young woman (Janet Leigh) decides to stay the night at small countryside motel run by a lanky mother-obsessed man named Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). Screens at 8 p.m. Thursday – Saturday, Oct. 27 – 29, at Cinema Under the Stars in Mission Hills.
Pretty Woman: Julia Roberts plays a charming prostitute who turns an unhappy yuppie (Richard Gere) into a believer in love. Screens at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, at Oceana Coastal Kitchen.
The Godfather: Francis Ford Coppola’s decades-spanning classic gangster film follows the infamous Corleone family led by Marlon Brando’s Don Vito. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.