Friday, December 30, 2016

THE HAUNTING

Life-sized human dilemmas fuel poignant Manchester by the Sea

We think of the movies as a medium of action and image. So it's kind of audacious that most of the drama is internal in Manchester by the Sea. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan brings his playwright's instincts to this intimate story of love, loss, and family in a close-knit fishing community on the Massachusetts coast.

These rugged folks don't articulate their feelings, but those feelings run deep, and Lonergan finds continually inventive ways to express them in this quietly moving film.   

Lonergan is best known for You Can Count On Me, another look at uneasy, but fierce family dynamics. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), the taciturn protagonist in Manchester by the Sea has no means of expressing his inner demons, not even to himself.

But Lonergan tells his story through judicious use of flashbacks, and in the ways he interacts with people around him, whether fighting, swearing, or joking around. (Indeed, for a movie whose plot turns on so many tragic elements, the dialogue can be surprisingly funny.)

Affleck and Hedges: new reality
Lee works as handyman and super at a small apartment building outside of Boston. He doesn't say much beyond what the job requires, and reacts with the same apparent indifference, whether he overhears a tenant telling her girlfriend on the phone she has a crush on him, or a tenant cusses him out over a plumbing malfunction.

But when his older brother, Joe, dies suddenly, Lee has to return to his home town of Manchester by the Sea, on Cape Ann. Joe (Kyle Chandler, in flashbacks) was a divorced commercial fisherman raising a son, Patrick, on his own.

Casey Affleck: stuck in Purgatory
Although the brothers were close, nothing breaks through Lee's tight-lipped impassivity — until he hears that Joe has named him the legal guardian of 16-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

As Lee and Patrick cope, Lee's memories play an ever more crucial role in the storytelling. The story of how Lee got stuck in his own haunted purgatory is revealed in small, heartbreaking increments, in counterpoint to the larger story of Lee and Patrick learning to navigate their strange new reality.

Affleck offers up shading in the smallest of gestures. His scenes with Hedges give the film its backbone. Michelle Williams provides fire and grace in her few scenes.

This is a life-sized story about recognizably human characters whose dilemmas stay with us.

Friday, December 23, 2016

PHONE TAGS

You've probably seen these two dueling phones ads by now. (Especially if you go to the Nickelodeon as often as I do.)

The first is unabashedly holiday-oriented, and because I'm such an easy mark, I always tear up. An old guy in shabby clothes with an aura of Frankenstein's monster about him shuffles into a village square populated by holiday revelers.

It's nighttime, and he pulls out two light bulbs, one red, one green, and screws them into the bolts in his neck.

When they light up, he hits a button on his iPhone to start the music, and begins to tentatively warble the first line of "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays."

But then, one of the bulbs goes out, and he flounders to a halt with embarrassment.

Until — a small, delicate, utterly adorable little girl, a live-action Cindy Lou Who, stretches up to screw the errant bulb back in, and then sings the second line of  the song. Then the entire square full of people join in to complete the verse.

The old guy is not quite homeless; we see him receiving the bulbs in a mailbox at his remote shack in the snow. But it's understood he's some kind of outcast or at least an outsider; parents sweep up their kids and back away slightly at his approach. But when he gets there, he's not panhandling. He's just trying to share a little holiday spirit.

That they not only "let" him participate, but join in with such warmth and gusto sends a very affecting message — especially in these dark and cold political times. The tagline is "Open your heart to everyone."

The sponsor is the Apple iPhone, of course. But what they're really selling is a narrative about community and inclusiveness.

The other spot begins well, with an image of hats viewed from above. In the middle, a yellow beret with a black puff ball tilts up to reveal the face of the woman wearing it. She sings one note and lowers her face again; other hats tilt up to reveal other faces singing more notes in an intricate, a cappella pattern.

The image gradually expands into a phone-shaped rectangle, which tilts up on end, with the Google logo below it. Who's the sponsor? The Google Pixel phone. What are they singing? "Just The Two Of Us."

Wait, what? Although the tagline reads "Together by you." ("Phone by Google"), what they really seem to be selling is isolation and exclusiveness. Me and my phone, just the two of us. Who needs real-life interaction? It's us against the world.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

THEY LOVE LA

Movie musical reborn in glorious joyride La La Land

It takes a lot of audacity to mount an old-fashioned Hollywood musical in these cynical times. Once a genre unto itself, usually a romantic story expressed in song and dance numbers ("All singing! All dancing!" the ads used to scream), the movie musical has been devalued in the age of irony.

Audiences who readily lap up zombies, vampires, and skyscraper-sized aliens are unable to suspend their disbelief for people breaking into song in the middle of their daily lives.

Only in Disney Princess cartoons do characters sing their hearts out onscreen (which is okay, because they're not, you know, real), or in the occasional film set in a musical milieu, like Once, where the characters bond through performing together.
Stone, Gosling: twilight

But Damien Chazelle's masterful La La Land makes the movie musical sing again. And dance. And how! As dubious as you might find the idea of a modern musical starring actors — Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — not previously known for their singing or dancing chops, this is one glorious joyride from start to finish.

The stars are capable and appealing, the locations all around greater Los Angeles County (including my home town of Hermosa Beach) look as magical as any film set, and Chazelle finds exciting new ways to reinvent the genre at every turn.

Gosling: piano man
Chazelle was smart enough to commission an original musical score from composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, which gives the movie its own upbeat and modern identity.

Appropriately enough, for a movie set in LA, the story begins on a freeway during a traffic jam. As horns blare, and traffic slows to a halt, the overhead camera zeroes in on one woman driver who starts singing. She emerges from her car and starts dancing, with other motorists of all ages, shapes, and colors (just like the population of LA) climbing out of their cars and join in.

It's a massive production number ("Another Day of Sun") that not only makes brilliant use of the freeway structure and immobilized cars as dancing props, it shows us just how much fun this movie is going to be.

When traffic starts up again Mia (Stone) has a fleeting, rude encounter with Sebastian (Gosling). She's an aspiring actress on her way to work at a coffeeshop on a movie studio backlot, where she can be close to the auditions she's always running off to. She shares an apartment with three other hopeful actresses in an old Art Deco building; after they drag her off to a party, she's on her way home when she wanders into a piano bar where Seb is playing.

Dancing with the stars: Griffith Observatory

Now the movie switches over to Sebastian's story after the freeway incident. He's a jazz musician reduced to playing Christmas carols in the bar (it's winter, when the story begins) to fund his dream of opening his own jazz club one day. (J. K. Simmons — co-star of Chazelle's last film, Whiplash —cameos as Seb's deadpan boss.)

Mia is drawn to a particularly hypnotic refrain Seb is playing, that echoes throughout the story. But even though their second encounter does not go well, they begin circling into each other's orbits and their relationship blossoms.

The rest of the story is best left to the viewer to experience. The themes are universal—pursuing dreams; staying true to oneself — but the storytelling is fresh. Mandy Moore's choreography is outstanding, from that huge freeway number to Mia and Seb's lovely tap duet as they start to fall in love, on a ridge overlooking LA at twilight. In a fabulous fantasy duet, they rise up into the starmap of the interior dome of Griffith Park Observatory — literally dancing with the stars.


Stone and Gosling: to the Lighthouse
Both Stone and Gosling have musical experience — she starred in a Cabaret revival on Broadway a couple if years ago, and he played multiple instruments (including piano) in an indie rock band. Chazelle chose to shoot their duets the old-fashioned way — in Cinemascope, in one take — and both performers are up to the challenge; their dancing is fluid and relaxed.   

Using iconic LA landmarks and neighborhoods —the venerable Lighthouse jazz club in Hermosa (and the beachfront and pier); Watts Towers; The Grand Cenral Market; the vintage Rialto Theatre, the Angel's Flight cable car — Chazelle creates a visual reverie on the City of Dreams, an LA that may only exist in the imagination.

And while he stays true in spirit to classic musicals, Chazelle's wistful, and poignant finale gives the movie an unexpected edge. La La Land is a virtuoso production that gives us all something to sing (and dance) about.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

BIRD MEETS GIRL

Girl defies tradition in soaring Eagle Huntress

The best girl-power stories are true. Fiction can inspire, but what better validation can there be for girls in the audience than a young woman who beats the odds in real life to excel at some traditionally male-dominated activity that she loves?

Someone like Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the 13-year-old heroine of the stunningly beautiful documentary The Eagle Huntress, a daughter of Mongolian nomads who defies tradition to master the ancient art of hunting with eagles.

Directed by first-timer Otto Bell, the film was shot by Simon Niblett, with great sensitivity to the severe beauty of the vast, craggy steppes of the Kazakh region of Mongolia, and for the folkways of its people. Nomadic families move out into the grasslands with their yurts to graze their sheep during the warm weather, but band together in their village of stone bunkers when winter comes.

Aisholpan's father is distinguished among the villagers as an eagle hunter, a skill learned from his own father. Indeed, the men in their family have been eagle hunters for twelve generations.

Like father, like daughter
Anyone bred into the brotherhood learns to capture his own baby eaglet from an untended nest, bond with the bird he trains to respond to his commands, and hunt the small game the nomads need to provide fur lining for their winter clothes. At the end of seven years of service, the hunter returns his bird to the wild with a ceremony of thanks.

It's always been a skill handed down from father to son, but Aisholpan has been fascinated by her father's birds from a very young age. He's taught her to feed and handle the bird, and to wear the forearm cuff on which the eagle perches.

Eagle hunting is "a calling," he says, "it has to be in your blood." So when his daughter wants to train to be an eagle hunter, he encourages her — and the filmmakers are there every step of the way.

Aisholpan and her eagle: bonded
Her father takes Aisholpan out into the mountains where she must "earn an eagle of her own," by scrambling down a cliff to snatch a female eaglet out of a nest. We see her feeding and cuddling with her eagle (a juvenile, yes, but still an enormous bird), and teaching her bird to respond to her particular voice commands.

Aisholpan is the youngest and the first-ever female to compete at a festival for eagle hunters from around the region. But the real test comes when she and her father take their shaggy ponies and their birds out into the mountains in deep winter to hunt for real.


The movie came about after Niblett heard about an eagle hunter teaching his craft to his daughter and took a series of still photographs of them. Director Bell signed on to make their story into a film, with Niblett as cinematographer, and when they showed their early footage to Star Wars franchise heroine Daisy Ridley, she begged to be involved, as both narrator and co-producer.

 Aisholpan's story in this soaring film inspires that kind of devotion.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

WATER WHIRLED

Action in the Pacific in Disney's girl-powered Polynesian adventure Moana

If Disney's gazillion-dollar-grossing Frozen was the perfect holiday animated feature of 2013, with its snowy Nordic landscape, and supporting cast that included a snowman and a reindeer, Disney's new cartoon feature, Moana, is the perfect holiday movie for the opposite reason — enveloped in the landscape and folklore of the Pacific Islands, it's a sunny, beachy, gorgeously animated antidote to winter.

Moana is directed by Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker and their creative team, the brain trust behind The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Princess and the Frog, among others. The movie's story and look are steeped in Polynesian mythology, and it features a principal voice cast of mostly Pacfic Islander descent, along with a songwriting team that includes Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame.

The result is a wonderful, girl-power tale of a young woman on a quest to find herself and fulfill her destiny.
Moana: Chosen by the Sea

Scripted by Jared Bush, from a story concocted by Clements, Musker, and their minions, Moana begins with an origin myth about the creation of life in the world, and a slumbering earth goddess in the shape of an island.

But a trickster demigod called Maui stole the sparkling green heart of the goddess, and now the seas are restless, and life in the islands is imperiled.

This tale is told by Gramma Tala (Rachel House) to an audience of rapt island children, and none are more thrilled than her own granddaughter, Moana.

In a brief, frisky montage, we see Moana as a toddler, child, and tween, repeatedly sneaking down to the beach to commune with the sea, only to be dragged back to the village by her father, the chieftan (Maori actor Temuera Morrison). The sea is dangerous, he keeps telling her, but life is beautiful in the village, where her destiny is to lead the people one day.

Moana discovers forbidden boats: love the design on that hull

But the sea herself disagrees. One day when little Moana protects a sea turtle hatchling from predator birds as it crawls into the sea, a wave rises up in a beautiful green spout and deposits a trail of conch shells leading into the ocean at the child's feet.

Her grandmother tells her the sea has chosen Moana to find Maui and return the heart to the sleeping island, far away across the ocean — even though her father forbids anyone from sailing their outrigger boats past the reef that surrounds their island.
Gramma Tala communes with the Sea

But by the time Moana is a young woman (now voiced by Auli'i Cravalho), a coconut blight, and a dwindling fish supply, put island life in jeopardy. The sea reveals the lost heart to Moana, and, at her grandmother's urging, she sets off past the reef, through stormy seas, to find Maui.

The relationship between girl and grandmother is very tender. When Moana is reluctant to leave her granny behind at the start of her quest, Gramma Tala tells her "There is nowhere you can go that I won't be with you."

Navigating by a constellation shaped like the Maui's fabled fish-hook, Moana finds the desolate salt island where the demigod has long been stranded for his crime. With a body full of tattoos, and plenty of attitude, Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson; turns out he's part Samoan), doesn't care about Moana's quest, but he covets her boat.


When the sea prevents him from throwing Moana overboard, Maui reluctantly adopts a big brother attitude toward her, and they set out to fix the mess he's made.

After a bizarrely funny encounter with a few boatloads of ferocious pirates made out of coconuts, they visit a scavenger crab (Jemaine Clement provides its sleepy hipster voice) to retrieve the magic fish-hook that allows Maui to shape-shift. (Although, when he wants to soar like a raptor, he's just as likely to find himself transformed into a bug, instead, or an airborne shark.)

A pet chicken provides comedy relief, and the movie spoofs the whole Disney Princess brand. When Moana bristles at that designation, Maui cracks, "If you wear a dress and you have an animal sidekick, you're a princess."

Moana's determination to become a Wayfinder echoes another great girl-power movie, Whale Rider. And, most cool are Maui's tattoos, which not only move around and tell their own animated stories, but act as Maui's conscience.

Maui's animated tats: Every picture tells a story
 Like Brave before it, Moana is a newly-minted adventure that's not based on a classic fairy tale, and a Disney Princess movie that doesn't need a prince. It's also great to see the folks at Disney pursuing diversity with such a vengeance, after their first 60 years of all-white heroines. (Remember when it was a big deal that Belle in Beauty and the Beast had brown eyes, not blue?)

Bursting with color, music, beautiful seagoing vistas, and the mythology and folkways of the Pacific Islands, Moana is guaranteed to cure your winter blahs.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

FLAME ON

Santa Cruz media icon Christina Waters is a true Renaissance Woman.

A journalist whose newspaper stories on arts and culture have been entertaining readers for decades, she's been nominated for the James Beard Award for her food writing (Spirits, Wine and Beer category).

She's a classically trained musician who sings in the University Choir, an accomplished painter, an educator at UCSC with a PhD in Philosophy, and a world traveler always eager to jet off to Milan or Bayreuth for the opera, or London for the theatre.

Now Christina can add "Author" to her impressive list of credits. Her new book, Inside the Flame: The Joy of Treasuring What You Already Have, is out this month from Parallax Press, in Berkeley. Part memoir, part dispensation of accumulated tribal wisdom, it's a collection of punchy, short pieces that exhort us to live now, in the present moment, in the real world — and offers suggestions on how to make our sensual, intellectual and emotional experiences of life even richer.

Christina and I have known each other since the Late Pleistocene Age; we met in the lobby of the Nickelodeon when we were both reviewing movies for rival papers, and we've been friends ever since. But even I was surprised at the sheer variety of life experiences revealed in Inside the Flame, and the depth of her willingness to share them with her readers.

If you're looking for someone to give you tips on how to live life fully, Christina is the mentor for you!

Her thoughtful, often playful pieces have provocative titles, like "Perfume Tattoos," "Up High and Down Low," "Purposeful Wandering,", and "When the World Touches Back."  In "Freestyle Craftiness," she celebrates "the rule that you don't require rules," in the act of creation.

In praise of the rougher, less genteel surfaces found in nature, she writes, "Texture is the world's way of getting our attention." In the piece, "Swimming In the Rain," she turns a story about diving into a public pool in the middle of a summer thunderstorm into an erotic confession.

In these brief, potent vignettes, Christina Waters celebrates the deeper meanings lurking beneath everyday experience, and through a collection of memories and suggested activities, invites us to reimagine our own lives.

Christina will read from Inside the Flame, sign books, and supply witty answers to your questions Monday night, November 28, at Bookshop Santa Cruz. She's liable to have a pretty big cheering section, so get in line now!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

BIPOLAR EXPRESS

Mental disorder handled with heart, wit, in exuberant Next To Normal


One of the most interesting things about the Jewel Theatre Company is its choice of material. Sure, they produce their share of the classics — Pinter, Shepard, Athol Fugard, Noel Coward — but Artistic Director Julie James also has a sharp eye for innovative work less familiar to local audiences.

Case in point: Next To Normal, the exhilarating second production in JTC's  ongoing 12th season. This show also marks the company's first anniversary in its new space, the Colligan Theater at The Tannery (where they opened last November with Guys And Dolls).

Next To Normal is also a musical, but there's nothing old-school about it. Produced on Broadway in 2009, the show won a couple of Tonys, along with a  Pulitzer Prize, for its audacious depiction of a wife and mother with bipolar disorder whose struggles to cope with her husband, her family, and herself, are surprisingly universal.
Schmitto, with Payne: outstanding

With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, this is not the kind of musical that comes with show tunes and a chorus line.

It's more like a rock operetta, with almost non-stop music provided in this production by an onstage jazz-rock combo (ably led by keyboardist Katie Coleman) and a cast of six terrific singers.

The music ranges from lyrical to powerhouse, the lyrics are insightful, and the singers perform it in an endlessly inventive series of duets, quartets, and counterpoints.

The story revolves around Diana (Lee Ann Payne), a suburban housewife struggling to get a grip on herself in order to hold her family together. Husband Dan (Christopher Reber) has stuck with her through all the peaks and valleys of her illness.

Payne and Reber: getting a grip
Son Gabe (the outstanding Coleton Schmitto) is the apple of his mother's eye. Teenage daughter Natalie (a poignant, affecting Brittany Law), a scholastic overachiever, also plays keyboards, embracing the classical precision of Mozart as an antidote to the chaos at home.

Payne sings up a storm; she captures Diana's wry wit, and articulates the emotional terrain of each number. Reber's rumpled, loyal Dan, trying to do his best, partners her beautifully. Married in real life, they last appeared onstage together for JTC in the fabulous film noir musical, Gunmetal Blues. (He was the gumshoe; she was the blonde who popped up in all the female roles.)

James (who also directs this production) keeps the action brisk and the audience engaged. The exuberance of this production is what live theatre is all about.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

MIAMI VICE

Race, identity, love, explored in eloquent Moonlight

Black lives matter in Moonlight, filmmaker Barry Jenkins' eloquent coming-of-age drama that explores issues of race, culture, and love in unexpected ways.

Adapted by Jenkins from an unproduced play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the story zeroes in on three key moments in the life of its protagonist as he experiences the world and searches for his place in it.

Beautifully acted, shot with visual intensity, and featuring a haunting soundtrack by Nicholas Britell, the movie begins in the recent past, in the suburbs of Miami.

A minor neighborhood drug kingpin, Juan (the charismatic Mahershala Ali), originally from Cuba, is making his rounds one day in his souped-up, vintage Impala, when he sees a pack of kids chasing a boy.
Ali and Hibbert; father figure

Tracking down the scared, silent boy to a boarded-up apartment house, Juan persuades him to come home with him. Over dinner with Juan's girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), the boy reveals that his name is Chiron, but everybody calls him "Little" (Alex R. Hibbert).

Juan takes the boy home to his single mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). But Little starts spending more time with Juan and Teresa.

Juan becomes the boy's mentor and surrogate father; he teaches him to swim in the ocean, and offers thoughtful advice about finding his own identity, no matter what bullies, or his mother, say about him. "You gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be."

Holland and Rhodes: collision course
In the movie's middle section, we meet Chiron again as a 16-year-old high school student (now played by Ashton Sanders). And about ten years later, in the movie's final act, we catch up with Chiron (played as a pumped, hard-edged adult by Trevante Rhodes), whose life has taken a turn that's both unexpected, and yet, sadly, inevitable.

One night, he receives a phone call —out of the blue — from the one friend back home he'd had in grade school, easygoing Kevin (André Holland). So Chiron hits the road on a collision course with the past.

Moonlight gives us a new way to look at characters and situations that are only clichés on the fringes of most mainstream movies.

It's a slice of cinematic poetry with a vision all its own.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

SPACE CAPTAIN

Very sad this week to hear of the passing of the one and only Leon Russell, whose soulful, gospel-tinged boogie-woogie, rocking' piano provided much of the soundtrack for my misspent youth. He was an accomplished guitarist too, but I loved his piano best!

I saw him live at the Anaheim Convention Center ca 1970: Elton John was his opening act. They played separate sets, but their pianos were butt-to-butt onstage. It was a great night!

Saw him again at UCLA, with his own band. Guest star was former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner (who was experiencing a tiny window of celebrity at that moment because of a documentary about him).

Marjoe thought he knew a thing or two about revving up a crowd with his strutting, frenzied onstage antics. But all Leon had to do was lift one pinky and cast a glance: his band started cooking, and the crowd went nuts!

He was featured in two of the greatest rock events of the '70s (spawning two of the greatest rockumentaries, ever): Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of the States (1970) (movie: 1971), and George Harrison's all-star Concert For Bangladesh (1971) (movie: 1972).

Leon was the musical director and onstage bandleader of the Cocker tour, assembling a knockout collective of studio and session musicians.

He also recruited some amazing vocalists (Rita Coolidge, Claudia Linnear, Jennifer Warnes, among others), not as mere "backup singers," but dubbed The Space Choir, whose contributions were heavenly indeed!

Seeing the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour movie in 1971, I decided joining his choir would be my Plan B career option. So what if I couldn't sing? With all those people crowding the stage, who would ever know?


Here's the entire company rocking out to "Space Captain." (Split screen; very Seventies.) Keep an eye on Leon in the side panels, to appreciate his keyboard riffs, and see just how surely he's in control of the band!

For the Concert For Bangladesh, Leon brought the core of his own touring band to play onstage with Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, and members of the group Badfinger.

Here's one of my favorite bits, Leon's medley of the Stone's "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and the Lieber-Stoller chestnut "Youngblood."

(It's kind of a buggy video; a random icon pops up onscreen now and then, and there's a commercial(!) in the middle of the clip. Still, you can see how cool these folks are in concert!)

Both of the soundtrack albums to these movies were at the top of my stereo default list for years!
Did I mention Leon Russell was also a songwriter? "Delta Lady," "Superstar," "Roll Away the Stone," and "A Song For You" are just the first ones that come to mind.

When my brothers and I were cleaning out my mom's house a few years ago, I found this stashed away somewhere. It's a full-page pic of Leon, ripped out of Rolling Stone magazine, in his trademark top hat, and cascading hair (already going silver in his late 20s). I'd taped it o a piece of cardboard, and had it posted in my room forever!

Singer, songwriter, guitarist, killer piano-player, and Master of Space and Time: rock on, Leon!

Monday, November 7, 2016

FULL SERVICE

Sex, lies, gender politics fuel twisty, edgy 'The Handmaiden'

It may seem like an odd collaboration: bad-boy Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park, famed for the violent male revenge melodrama Oldboy, and British author Sarah Waters, whose erotic thrillers are set in the Dickensian underworld of Victorian London.

But it turns out to be a surprisingly happy match-up in The Handmaiden, Park's Asian riff on Waters' novel Fingersmith. Filmmaker and source material are both edgy in complementary ways.

Gorgeously shot and composed, audacious, and full of witty visual asides, The Handmaiden is a sly entertainment of sex, larceny, deception, double-crosses, and female liberation.

Park shifts the locale to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Sook-Hee (bright and lively Kim Tae-ri) is a young woman who's grown up in a den of pickpockets and thieves, purchased from a "purveyor of stolen girls." One of the gang leaders, a smooth-talking Korean who calls himself Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), picks Sook-Hee as his accomplice in an elaborate swindle.
Maid to Order: Kim Tae-ri and Min-hee Kim

The mark is Kouzuki (Jin-woo Jo), a wealthy, middle-aged Japanese man living in splendor at a remote country estate. Kouzuki has been the guardian of his niece, Hideko — and her fortune — since she was five years old.

Now that Hideko (Min-hee Kim) is a poised young woman, the Count, a talented art forger, has secured himself a position as her drawing tutor. He's also arranged employment for Sook-Hee as Lady Hideko's handmaiden.

The plan is for Sook-Hee to assist the Count in persuading Hideko to run away with him. Once married, he'll shut her up in a madhouse and claim her fortune for himself.
Drawing conclusions:Jung-woo Ha and Min-hee Kim

Hoping to make her own fortune from her share of the take, Sook-Hee agrees. Street-smart, but not especially sophisticated (she can't read), she's awed by Kouzuki's grand home, his immense library of rare books that she's forbidden to enter, and the beauty of her new mistress — who's surprisingly close to her own age.

But this is just the jumping-off point for a plot that becomes more bold, twisty, and rewarding as it unfolds. (Park's film could be a subversive co-bill with Miss Hokusai: both deal with ukiyo-e erotica, including the famed print of a giant octopus pleasuring a swoony geisha, an image Park also references in one funny, fleeting visual gag.)

You might want to skip this one if onscreen sex makes you uncomfortable. But otherwise, this is a lavish, intricate puzzle-box of a movie that considers colonial, and gender politics with wicked aplomb. (Read more in this week's Good Times.)