Thursday, October 27, 2016

Park Chan Wook’s technically executed "The Handmaiden" follows Amazon's orders

By Moira Sullivan

Official poster is a narrative of the narrative

Park Chan Wook’s “Mademoiselle (Agassi, South Korea)” - "The Handmaiden" in its US Theatrical release, is a skillfully made narrative on sexual bondage during the Japanese colonization of South Korea in the 1930's. Set designer Ryu Seong-hie won the “Vulcain Prize For An Artist Technician” at the Cannes Film Festival in May 22, one of the top prizes for technical achievement, a prize that is seldom given. The set designer also worked on Park Chan Wook’s “Oldboy” and “Thirst” and is definitely a brilliant craftsperson who brings high quality to film. The virtues of Ryu Seong-hie’s work shines through and at first glance the film is so exquisitely composed that for a moment the Palme d’Or comes to mind. 

However, for that to succeed there has to be more cohesion than just set design, for neither Park Chan Wook nor 2013 Palme d'Or recipient Abdellatif Kechiche (who directed "La Vie d' Adele -Blue is the Warmest Color") have shown themselves capable of making a film with authentic lesbian characters. Certainly, the actors in "Blue is the warmest color " (Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos) agree and complained how the director exploited them. This time, whether or not this kind of voyeurism took place on the set of” Mademoiselle”, the relationship between the two women is done more for heterosexual titillation, including the love scenes between the two women. 

Primary focus is the usage of an overdone theme of pornographic writing in the style of de Sade's ilk that has been given ample room in films of today. A young girl is bred to read pornographic literature for a wealthy man’s clientele by her Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo). He is a book collector but later we learn that it is only porn that he collects. The nightmares of his niece have to do with the sexual violence she is subjected to by him via image, text and touch where there has been a criminal betrayal of trust by him and his housekeeper. The womans mother, in fact, was driven to suicide by the uncle. When the girl grows up she has become the wealthy heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). A dastardly plan is created by Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) who schemes to get a pickpocket Sook-hee (Tae Ri Kim) to pose as a handmaiden, gain her confidence and assist in making Count Fujiwara her future husband. Their plan is to drive Lady Hideko mad like her mother and make off with her fortune. 

It is not only this complicated plot that is the foundation of "Mademoiselle"but the fact that Park Chan Wook chooses to tell the story from different perspectives in three parts to allow the spectator inside information that is not possible by following just one of the narrative arches. This is done well, but not as cleverly designed as the art direction. The house where Uncle Kouzuki lives is a composite of half western and half Japanese architecture in this Korean screenplay based on the Victorian novel by Sarah Waters" Fingersmith" (made into a minseries in 2005). However, Park Chan Wook’s adaptation, though seductive, relies heavily on heterosexual porn and sexual violence against women to be considered an LGBT classic. When asked about his film, Park Chan Wook said it was about "three people with secrets". It became known through the Cannes Festival trades that VOD distributor Amazon Studios requested that  the same sex nature of the film be toned down and the South Korean director complied. He also is on record stating that the story is "cute".

© 2016 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 10/26/16
Movie Magazine International

Sônia Braga in Cannes selection "Aquarius"

By Moira Sullivan

Aquarius directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho was part of the official lineup of the recent Cannes Film Festival. The contemplative and well-crafted film rests on the laurels of Brazilian actress Sônia Braga who plays Clara, a 66-year-old woman who has lived in the same apartment for over 25 years. A management firm has persuaded everyone in the Aquarius building to move out so that they can presumably demolish it and put up a new one - all except Clara and her housekeeper. The film is divided into three parts ‘O Cabelo de Clara” (Clara’s Hair), ‘O Amor de Clara’  (Clara’s Love), and ‘O Câncer de Clara’, Clara’s Cancer.

Aquarius opens with a series of black and white stills of the Boa Viagem beach front in Recife during the 1980’s, tree lined, spacious, a few cars notably several VW Beetles and the foreboding presence of many high rise apartment buildings. The opening song “Hoje” (Today) accompanying the photos is written by Brazilian singer/songwriter Taiguara whose work was often censured in Brazil.

A 30-year-old Clara (Barbara Colen) is playing on the beach with her brother Antonio and his wife and kids. In their Chevy with a prominently displaced Recife license plate, Clara plays a hit tune on the car stereo written by John Deacon from Queen, “Another One Bites the Dust”. A 70 year birthday party for Clara’s aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez) is being held in her apartment and her husband Adalberto (Daniel Porpino) anxiously awaits her. The tribute to Aunt Lucia by her grand nieces and nephews lists her accomplishments and major life events such as being imprisoned presumably during the military coup of 1964, but her mind is far off in sentimental nostalgia for her lover Augusto. The images from her memory are raw and unexpected. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s opening surprise may detract from political realities but as Lucia mentions, her little niece left out the sexual revolution. Perhaps the somber portrait of the exploitation of Recife is too strict a portrait and Sônia  Braga as Clara who made her career playing a seductress needs to do more than exercising and swimming on the beach, napping in a hammock and watching her grandchildren.  

Along with the tribute to Aunt Lucia, Adalberto makes a tribute to Clara who has successfully recovered from breast cancer. The next scene is set in the same apartment ca 2014 with some architectural changes. Clara has returned from the beach and removes her swimsuit revealing a mastectomy scar. Kleber Mendonça Filho makes it a point to show that Clara is still attractive, still takes care of herself and can still attract men.

The management team clearly wants Clara out and are behind stunts such as packing the building with church going people and without notice, renting out the empty apartment to a group of men and women directly above Clara who play loud music and party.

Photographs are used in the film like vinyl records and vintage cars to evoke the past – pictures of powerful men lining restaurant walls, digital photos on the internet of the management team, and family albums. Gazing upon these affects Clara’s dreams which are depicted with regularity.

Aquarius is a memory bank where the artefacts of yesterday are uncovered by the day to day modern  Recife. Sônia Braga deserves great parts after an entourage of fluffy films from the past. Her talent as a serious actress is outstanding in this film and she continues to garnish international attention. Braga who became a US citizen in 2003 appears in Netflix’s Marvel series “Luke Cage” and in a forthcoming film opposite Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon in John Turturro’s  Going Places which builds on his role as the bowling king Jesus Quintana in the Coen brothers 1998 hit The Big Lebowski.

© 2016 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 10/26/16
Movie Magazine International

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

United Nations Film Festival screens powerful documents on world issues today and yesterday

By Moira Sullivan

Producer Sharon Stone interviews Sam Harris, the youngest remaining survivor 
of the Holocaust, in An Undeniable Voice October 29 at Stanford University.
Once again it is that time of year for the United Nations Film Festival, a collection of 60 films from around the world that have been created to help make our world a better place to live in. Many of the films this year are directed by women. The films will screen in venues in San Francisco and Palo Alto from Oct 20-30.

The countries for the 19th edition include Afghanistan, Cuba, Ethiopia, India, Iraq, ,Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa, and the US. Some of the topics this year are climate change, the impact of industrial and military ocean noise on whales, efforts to restore violins recovered from the Holocaust, Islamic seminars for children, refugees using the power of theater, and the historic inspiration to the Black Lives Matter movement today.

Agents of Change will screen 10/26 directed by Abby Ginzberg and Frank Dawson which traces protests on over 1000 college campuses around the world in the 60’s for  civil rights and black power. Many of these students went on to change the forces of racial inequality in the US.  In so doing the film hooks up with the "Black Lives Matter" movement of today.

Among the Believers is a film from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US which screens 10/29 by  
Hemal Trivedi, Mohammed Naqvi. The film is about Abdul Aziz Ghazi, a cleric that not only supports ISIS but the Taliban and who is a powerful radical advocate for Sharia Law in Pakistan. Two students from madrassas, schools where young people are trained in Islam, are part of Ghazi’s Red Mosque Network. The film is instrumental in providing an ideological background to the radical forces in the Islamic world today.

The Brainwashing of My Dad by Jen Senko to be screened on 10/25 is presented as another way of looking at radicalization- a term that is applied to recruits for ISIS. Think of right wing media such as FOX that exist to recruit followers and change their opinions. In this case Jen Senko’s father transformed from a Democrat into a right wing fanatic fueled by the media strategy of Roger Ailes who once worked for Richard Nixon.

Poster Girl directed by Sara Nesson is a documentary screening 10/20 about Robyn Murray, a National Merit Scholar and cheerleader who enlisted in the Army in a civilian division to help rebuild Iraq. She witnessed sniper attacks and combat fire all around her and as a result suffered from Panic attacks and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when she returned home. One of her ways to help heal herself was to transform her uniform and army manuals in to an art project by using her body as a model with these materials.

Nefertiti’s Daughter is a film from Egypt screening 10/27  by Mark Nickolas, Racha Najdi about women graffiti artists in Egypt. The film chronicles how their street art was instrumental in the fight for political change during the Egyptian uprisings. The graffiti icon of Queen Nefertiti is a symbol for women’s rights in Egypt today.

There are many more excellent examples of film at the United Nations Film Festival and the complete schedule can be found on

© 2016 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 10/19/16
Movie Magazine International

Southwest of Salem - human rights violation of Latino lesbians

By Moira Sullivan

The title of this film about four women who were put in prison and sentenced to long terms:  Southwest Of Salem: The Story Of The San Antonio Four accurately describes how a Texas judge and those who testified against these four Latina lesbians were involved in a homophobic witchhunt. Their outrageous sentences - 37 years of imprisonment for one women and 15 years for the other three amounts to a hate crime. The women  did not plea bargain and have all served 15 years.
Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez are now out of prison awaiting their exoneration appeal. Their case was submitted to lawyers in the "Innocence Project of Texas" for this purpose. No evidence was presented in court that the alleged crimes took place.

One of the interviewees in the film, Debbie Nathan, wrote together with Michael Snedeker, Satan's silence: ritual abuse and the making of a modern American witch hunt (1995) on the Satanic Panic witchhunts of the 80s and 90s. She came to the attention of Director Deborah S. Esquenazi with news of this story. Esquenazi assembles interviews with the four women, witnesses, footage from 2000 when the alleged crime took place, and how the trial was conducted. There are also interviews with their lawyers at the "Innocence Project of Texas" who took their case.

These women are now in their forties and have been deprived of years of their freedom for being Latino lesbians. As it turned out one of the accusers was in love with one of the women and disapproved of her lifestyle. The women are interviewed in and out of prison and they are always close to tears when they report the history. Two of the women were lovers and have drifted apart because of the trial and aftermath.

The film is not only made to talk about what happened but also to gather support for the women and bring international and national attention. The Salem witchraft trials were hundreds of years ago but this case has similar characteristics. Stories from little girls are related and interpreted by adults and officials get involved. In this case the lack of evidence points to negligence in the Texas courtroom and violations of human rights.The film debuted at the Tribeca film festival this year and also at Frameline this summer.

© 2016- Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 10/19/16
Movie Magazine International