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A System of Masks: My Post-Election Trip to the Movies

I went to see Moonlight on November 10, having planned to go on November 9. But I couldn’t make myself go. I knew it wouldn’t be fair to the movie to go into the theater in my miserable state of mind. But the next day, in serious need of distraction, I took the train down to my local theater. In the words of our president-elect, the theater should be a safe space; Moonlight at least was a grand departure from the fear of my friends and relatives outside, in the daylight. Out of a sort of selfish glee at this brief escape from the world, I decided I needed more stunning, complex, queer films in my day, and I bought myself another popcorn and a ticket to the next showing of The Handmaiden.

When I left the theater, to a post-election Boston full of shock-deadened faces, the noise and energy of the movies felt somehow brutal in hindsight. Their forward-thinking energy had been a refreshing reminder that film is moving determinedly forward, even if American culture at large appears suddenly to have disastrously reversed seven decades. But there was also the sense of things laid bare: the fear in people’s faces was blunt and obvious. Moonlight and The Handmaiden are both movies about masks—social masks that the characters wear to protect themselves and their inner lives.

As has often been remarked since its debut, Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight is exactly the kind of intricate, quiet film that makes a monumental impact. The movie has a kind of gentleness to its silences, a loveliness to the length of its shots. It’s like standing off to the sidelines of a dance floor and watching a natural expert carry out a waltz with smooth, fluid grace. Moonlight knows what it’s doing. It’s a delight to watch a movie with so much confidence and force.

The plot follows three stages of a young, gay, black man’s life, as he grows through his relationships with his parent (Naomie Harris) and de-facto parents (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae), his bullies and crushes, and his sense of himself. Each section bears the name of the man’s name in each stage of life—the child, Little (Alex R. Hibbert); the teen, Chiron (Ashton Sanders); and the adult, Black (Trevante Rhodes). Each of these distinct characters—at school, on the street, at loose ends—relies on various social masks. He is never only himself: he has to choose an identity to present, an identity that for most of his life does not include his sexuality.

One of the movie’s true achievements is the exacting portrayal of its character’s inner life, at the same moment that it shows how he restrains it, performing various roles to keep himself under guard. As the movie trails forward through the years, the teenaged Chiron, quiet and fortified but deeply longing for affection, transforms into Black, the larger-than-life dealer who intimidates his workers while disguising fear as play. We know he is never at ease: the movie’s artistry has all the confidence he lacks.

The final reward of the movie is honesty, as Black throws off his tough social persona to eat at Kevin’s (André Holland) restaurant and allows himself to speak plainly in the confined, private space of Kevin’s apartment. It’s a breath of relief: the fear and tension and isolation of Little and Chiron and Black himself, propelling Black into a self-discovery and connection.

Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi) plays the game differently: while plot is clear and desire muted in Moonlight, The Handmaiden shows us many difficult forms of erotic desire but couches them in a puzzle box of a plot. The tension of The Handmaiden comes from the valence of many, many hidden narratives. It’s a more elegantly and beautifully executed con movie—think Ocean’s 11, but with no white men and more lesbians. Sook-Hee (Tae-ri Kim) is hired as a handmaiden to a wealthy and mysterious aristocrat, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Sook-Hee, though, comes into this new job while embroiled in a plot to rob Hideko of her fortune.

Maneuvering with and against the con’s mastermind, Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), and under the nose of Hideko’s disturbed and abusive uncle (Jin-woong Jo), the many threads of the movie move beautifully into place. Romance sprouts, not between the con man and his victim, but between handmaiden and mistress. Throughout, though, the delicate secrecy of the plot keeps us mostly in the dark. The men and women wear many masks: they play the role of a timid, naïve woman; of a lustful painting instructor; even of heterosexual friends. Only when Hideko can literally toss her disguise into the ocean the plot comes wholly into the light.

The movies’ combined clarity amounted for me to a refreshing sense of revelatory power. The movies’ treatment of queer identities, complex and powerful, embattled and finally unbounded, gave me a sense of power entirely lacking in the freshly bitter American landscape outside. Despair is not a luxury these movies indulge in: the self is hidden, but never killed.

That promise felt thin to me, after the debacle of the election, and continuous protests, the spike in hate crimes. It seems to me that despite the progressive promise of these beautiful films, masks are more firmly in demand than they were a few weeks ago. Suddenly, we are not safe confidently owning and divulging our identities: Muslim registry is in the news, LGBTQ discrimination decriminalized…The kind of brave, queer identities on display in Moonlight and The Handmaiden, while the narratives themselves are set in the past, feel abruptly, optimistically ahead of their time.

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