Friday, December 4, 2020

Getting a Handle on “The Handmaiden”

When Parasite started gaining international attention, I was unfamiliar with the work of today’s much-acclaimed South Korean filmmakers. But the bravado style and moral complexity of that twisty thriller (which went on to become the first foreign-language film ever to win Hollywood’s Best Picture Oscar) enthralled me, and I determined to find out more. Decades ago, when I spent a week as a houseguest in Seoul, I was taken to a movie. It was, as I recall, a cheap imitation of an American film. There was a Coca-Cola-style beverage being hustled in the lobby (along with a bad attempt at chocolate candy): the sale of these unappealing items was helped along by an abrupt intermission midway through the flick.

 Today, though, many Korean films are exquisitely calibrated works of art. (I’m sure the snacks have improved too.) That’s why I set aside time to watch Chan-Wook Park’s most recent film, The Handmaiden. It’s a period piece, set in the 1930s, when Korea was dominated by a Japanese ruling class, and downtrodden Koreans were expected to have a full command of the Japanese language and customs. That’s why prints for American audiences are subtitled in both languages (yellow fonts for Japanese; white for Korean), and it’s fascinating to see characters switch, sometimes in mid-conversation, from one language to another.

 If the language use is fluid in the film, so is identity in general. Many of the characters are trying to pass themselves off as people (and even  nationalities) they are not, like the ersatz Japanese count—so aristocratic in his manners—who turns out to be the son of a Korean farmer. Moreover, few characters’ motives are entirely clear.  This is brought home to us when, at different points in the film, the same key episodes play out, but with slight variations that change their meaning entirely, depending on whose perspective we are in at the time. In every case, facts blur, deceptions abound, and we in the audience find ourselves rethinking everything we thought we once knew.

 As a Roger Corman peon, there was a time I was knee-deep in erotic thrillers, and The Handmaiden is about as erotic as it gets. Bodies are treated frankly, but also with full respect for their beauty. (There’s a  sharp contrast here to the bizarre pornographic illustrations—drawn from classic Japanese erotica—that one of the main characters obsessively collects.) But if nudity is one of this film’s staples, so is the respect paid to clothing and adornment. Lady Hideko, the elegant Japanese transplant played by Min-hee Kim, shifts between stylish western flounces and formal kimono, contrasting dramatically with “handmaiden” Sook-Hee’s Korean-style apparel. (I’ve always speculated that the contrast between the tightly-bound Japanese obi and the loosely billowing Korean dress epitomizes the difference between the two cultures.) When garments are switched or removed, it’s often to signal that a radical shift in identity is about to follow. When we see Sook-Hee, now in Japan, suddenly donning sumptuous-looking Japanese brocade, we know something unsettling is about to occur.

 One of the pleasures of Parasite was seeing the creative use being made of a hyper-modern Seoul luxury home. The Handmaiden, too, takes vivid advantage of its architectural setting. Much of the film is set in the Korean countryside, where the lascivious Uncle Kouzouki has used his  considerable wealth to create an amalgam of a sumptuous Victorian palace and an austere Japanese villa. This hybrid structure in some ways reflects the contradictions of this film, which is both ugly and beautiful, both degrading and uplifting, both minimalist and baroque. But always, always fascinating.



Tuesday, December 1, 2020

At the Core of the Big Apple: The Taking (and Retaking) of Pelham 123

Back when I used to travel to Manhattan for business and pleasure, I often jumped on the Lexington line, heading downtown. You can see all sorts of sights on New York subways, but happily I never encountered a quartet of desperate men, disguised with hats and fake mustaches, commandeering a train car and threatening to kill passengers, one by one, if their outrageous financial demands aren’t met. That’s central to The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a superior thriller released in 1974.

 I became intrigued when I read a comment by actress Cynthia Nixon, who called this “my absolute favorite movie of all time. When it comes to movies about New York City, this one blows the competition out of the water.”  Given how many great NYC movies have been made over the years, Pelham had to overcome some mighty stiff competition to be at the top of Nixon’s list. Now that I’ve seen it, I understand where Nixon, a native New Yorker, is coming from. The film presents a vibrant cross-section of New York life: its characters reflect a range of ethnicities and social strata, but they all share a cranky obstinacy that makes them truly seem to be at the core of the Big Apple.

 Perhaps the crankiest and most obstinate is Walter Matthau, as the head of New York Transit’s police division. It’s his job to figure out what’s going on with the southbound train called Pelham One Two Three, but his life is made no easier by the visiting Japanese dignitaries whose knowledge of English only seems limited, nor by the co-worker at headquarters who questions his every move. Eventually the city’s inept mayor and his oily chief of staff become part of the situation too, as do scores of irked commuters. But of course they’re all essentially being held hostage by the greedy, lethal, and (yes) obstinate hijackers, led by Robert Shaw. Also part of the plot is Martin Balsam, who—after some serious mayhem—features along with Matthau in one of the greatest final scenes ever.

 When you’ve got a movie this good, why bother to remake it? Funny you should ask. In 2009, Tony Scott decided to work his action-film magic on the property, slightly retitling it The Taking of Pelham 123. In Scott’s hands the movie has become twice as hectic, twice as violent, and at least four times as bloody, making room for lots of car crashes and other adrenaline-pumping moments. And the original ensemble piece (directed by Joseph Sargent) has somehow evolved into a star vehicle for two of Hollywood’s biggest names. John Travolta plays the twitchy leader of the bad guys, a man not just greedy but totally screwed up, motivated by a kind of weird Catholic death wish. And instead of average-schmo Walter Matthau, the head of the good guy team is now Denzel Washington, who’s not just a subway dispatcher but also a man who’s been demoted into this job because of an ethical lapse of which he may or may not be guilty. Moreover, he’s a former motorman himself, so at a certain point he ends up being summoned to take over the controls of the hijacked train car. Which puts him face to face with Travolta in the kind of movie-star showdown we could have anticipated from the start, with Denzel looking for redemption and Travolta wanting . . . well, what the heck does he really want, anyway?

 A side note: the $1 million sought by the hijackers in 1974 has become $10 million in 2009. You can always count on inflation. 




Friday, November 27, 2020

Thankful for “Cabin in the Sky”

Thanksgiving is a good time for nostalgia. This year I find myself nostalgic about my late parents, whose tastes in movies (and so much else) undoubtedly shaped mine. They loved musicals, and one of their very favorite, released well before I was born, has become special to me as well. I’ve seen it countless times on TV’s late-late show, and some of its best gags (like a young demon bragging about his prowess as an evil-doer by proudly announcing, “I invented flies”) were catchphrases in my family for years.

 Cabin in the Sky (1943) is a fantasy, based on a popular Broadway show in the same vein as Green Pastures, which means it boasts an all-Black cast, drawn from the ranks of the era’s most popular entertainers. The central female role, Petunia Jackson, is played by the great Ethel Waters, who similarly graced the stage version. Also featured are many of Hollywood’s favorite performers: Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as Petunia’s erring husband; Lena Horne as a devilish femme fatale; Louis Armstrong in a comic role, Duke Ellington’s band tooting away in a big nightclub scene. The songs are instant classics: “Taking a Chance on Love,” “They Say That Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe.” The film is directed with a light and loving touch by Vincente Minnelli, at the very start of his legendary film career. (The word is that he accepted this directing assignment when more experienced white directors wouldn’t touch it.)

 So what’s it about?  We start in a cozy all-Black community that’s full of pious folk (a rollicking gossip hymn, “Little Black Sheep,” kicks off the film) but also some serious temptations like crap games. Petunia is saintly, but her beloved husband, Little Joe, can’t stay away from the dice. We segue to the realm of Lucifer Jr. and his demons, who are always trying to stir up trouble among earthly sinners. They tempt Little Joe with a winning lottery ticket, then send the gorgeous Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) to seal the deal. The climax, at Jim Henry’s jazz joint, seems to promise eternal damnation for several of the characters, but (surprise!) goodness wins out in the end.

 There was a time when Cabin in the Sky was chased out of Southern movie houses because many white patrons were offended that so-called “sable” performers were onscreen playing something other than maids and shoeshine boys. Today, it’s easy to see how the film might offend African-Americans who consider its portrayal of Black life condescending. I put the question to my friend Clifford Mason, the playwright and theatre historian who takes seriously indeed the portrayal of Blacks on movie screens. As always, he was candid, speaking about this show as what he calls “race neutral,” this being “the popular method by which America allows Black Americans to participate in the cultural life of the country through the clever method of NOT talking about race.”  He insists, with obvious sarcasm, that Cabin in the Sky is “just a nice, pleasant entertainment with nice pleasant neegrows doing what America loves to see them do: sing and dance.” In pretty much the same category, Cliff puts everything from Porgy and Bess to The Equalizer to Madea, projects in which Blackness is decorative rather than something to be seriously explored. 

 I can’t really argue. (I suspect that arguing with Cliff Mason would put me at a grave disadvantage.) Still, for my money Cabin in the Sky is a film in which good performers play good (and deliciously bad) people, and no one can convince me not to love it.