The cast of 'The Handmaiden'
The cast of The Handmaiden, opening at Landmark Shattuck Cinemas on Friday

If you’re familiar with South Korean filmmaker Chan-Woo Park you know his reputation. The creator of such outrageous, over-the-top features as Lady Vengeance and Oldboy (remade by Spike Lee in 2013), Park specializes in pushing the cinematic envelope and making audiences uncomfortable.

His new feature, Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 28) is no exception to the rule. Despite a sedate opening act suggesting Park may have mellowed with age, The Handmaiden proceeds to prove the director is as challenging and transgressive as ever.

Set in Japanese-occupied Korea early in the 20th century, the film tells the story of pickpocket Sook-Hee (Tae-Ri Kim) and a professional swindler known pseudonymously as Count Fujiwara (Jung-Woo Ha). Fujiwara has his eye on the fortune possessed by Korean collaborator Kouzuki (Jin-Woong Jo), whose work on behalf of the Japanese invaders has made him remarkably wealthy.

The plan: insinuate Sook-Hee into Kouzuki’s household as lady’s maid for his niece Hideko (Min-Hee Kim), eligible bachelorette and heiress to the fortune, and await the arrival of tutor, potential suitor, and phony Japanese nobleman Fujiwara. Once the Count arrives, it will be up to Sook-Hee to whisper in Hideko’s ear and convince her of his honest intentions and genuine love.

Park sets the scene effectively. Hideko and her uncle live in a monstrous Gothic mansion, an architectural carbuncle blending disparate elements of Japanese and Victorian design. The interior is kept suitably dark to prevent sun damage to Uncle’s rare and expansive collection of, ahem, pornography.

Aye, there’s the rub: Koizuki’s hobby has affected his niece in unusual and troubling ways, as we are about to learn. The Handmaiden proceeds down an increasingly dark and erotic path throughout its second half, and those averse to cinematic depictions of violence and overt sexuality are advised to steer well clear.

As beautifully made as it is, this is not a film for everyone – and frankly, I’m not even sure it’s for me. Clocking in at 144 minutes (supposedly there’s an even longer cut for international distribution!), there’s a lot to appreciate about The Handmaiden – and a fair amount to make you loosen your collar or shift uncomfortably in your seat. Proceed with caution.

‘Company Town’: Local documentary examines impact of Airbnb

Aaron Peskin campaigns in 'Company Town'
Aaron Peskin campaigns in Company Town, an examination of the impact of Airbnb in San Francisco

The first time I heard the expression ‘sharing economy’, I didn’t know what it meant – but it sure sounded nice. What could possibly be wrong with sharing?

A lot, as it turns out, starting with what’s now become obvious: the sharing economy has nothing to do with sharing and everything to do with corporations finding new ways to harvest our money. These are the concerns of Company Town, a low-budget documentary with a local twist opening at Rialto Cinema’s Elmwood on Friday, Oct. 28.

Directed by Berkeley residents Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, the film examines the effects of billion dollar start-up Airbnb on rental properties in San Francisco. Framing its story around last year’s hard fought City Council election between Jane Christensen and Aaron Peskin, Company Town is brief, to the point, and ends on a welcome note of uplift: it seems you can beat city hall every once it a while.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...