Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus 2020.01: Minari

Not quite like being there, but…
I haven't seen Brian Tamm since, well, probably some rep show at the Brattle in January or February, and as much as going out to that theater to film these introductions for the various films in the Fall Focus may be a bit of an affectation, it's a welcome one, a slight nudge toward normality in a situation where everything seems compromised and out of place. These intros can't help but remind us that we're not there, but at least get us a little closer rather than pushing us away.
Nancy Campbell, his co-director at IFFBoston, didn't attempt to stage a festival-style Q&A by necessity, but instead had a nice chat with writer/director Lee Isaac Chung and Kim's Convenience star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee that was free to go in a number of different directions naturally. You could tell that getting this story told in this way was a big deal not just for the filmmaker but for other Asian-American viewers. I love immigration stories a lot even if I can't directly relate to them (and if this one doesn't quite fit the category), but to see everyone on-screen talking about seeing themselves in a way they don't often get to is almost the best part, and it might possibly have made Minari the best virtual-festival experience of the year, because viewing a movie with an audience that has something more than just a couple hour's entertainment invested and seeing how they react is a big part of what makes going to a festival so great compared to just queuing two or three things up in an evening.

It was good talk when they got to stuff that was a bit more nuts and bolts, too, like how Chung was very lucky to be able to have most of the movie in Korean, because that's often a point of negotiation and I suspect that they were making this before The Farewell demonstrated that you could tell an American story even if most of the characters speak their first language rather than English. I was glad to hear that, in part because one of my favorite moments of the movie was when the two kids started speaking Korean on a bus with other kids (most if not all white) after having mostly spoken English with each other but Korean with their parents throughout the rest of the movie. It's such a telling little point that might disappear if you have everybody speak English to make things easier on the audience (which is often a valid choice).

Anyway, I really liked this movie and immediately linked it with In America in my head, which is one of my absolute favorites.and which I am absolutely shocked is not currently available on disc. It's rentable and streamable if you've got the right services, and I do have a copy (so old that it has widescreen on one side and pan & scan on the other), heartily recommended if Minari has you wanting more after A24 settles on a release date.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, AgileTicketing via Roku)

Movies like Minari are often close enough to the same in their broad contours that the little ways in which they surprise their viewers become all that much more intriguing. One doesn't necessarily want a story of immigrants trying to find their way in a new country to veer too far from the template - it's a genre meant to reassure the audience as much as anything - but what makes the great ones special is how they can be both earnestly hopeful and unpredictable at once.

Here, the family is the Yis, arriving in rural Arkansas in 1989. Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Yeri) arrived in California from South Korea a dozen years ago, with children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim) born in America. Jacob, it seems, has misrepresented their new home somewhat - rather than a house with room for a garden, it is a trailer in a field that he intends to farm when not working at the poultry plant. Even with local veteran Paul (Will Patton) helping, they are still stretched too thin - David has an issue with his heart that requires watching - so they are soon joined by Monica's mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-Jung), who is not exactly the David's idea of what a grandmother should be.

Indeed, she's not exactly what one would generally expect Monica's mother to be. They have one of those relationships where one suspects the daughter has spent a great deal of her life trying to avoid becoming her mother even if there's no animosity, and it's the sort of thing that one will immediately catch onto even if writer/director Lee Isaac Chung doesn't spend much time spelling it out. There's something similar going on with Jacob and Monica, with a little bit more in the way of detail revealed there. There's friction in their marriage, and it has always been there, not just as something Anne and David recognize, but all the way back to Korea, and one wonders how many times they have looked for a new start. Chung at one point has them refer to how Jacob has always been more country while Monica gravitates to the city, something their chosen English names reflect, whether they recognize it or not.

It's the sort of clear but not constraining characterization that gives the cast plenty to work with, with Steven Yeun doing an especially fine job of keeping the way in which Jacob is a man often consumed by pride and an earnestly-motivated need to succeed present at all times but also giving him the right sort of self-awareness. There's a bit of fear there when he gets angry or feels things closing in, and it makes the times Jacob and Monica get into shouting matches feel more tragic than like a situation where one is likely to take sides, especially when contrasted against Han Yeri's Monica. Han takes the character that could be mainly cowed and confused - the wife who is a fish two layers out of water as they follow her husband's dreams - and seizes on how she's perceptive enough to see things very clearly in most cases, letting that surface rather than stay buried. This pair never quite fit together and maybe never have, but they're together even if it's never going to be easy.

They may be at the heart of it, but the film is mostly from David's point of view - he's Chung's stand-in for this semi-autobiographical tale - and Chung and the cast do a good job of capturing both how a seven-year-old would see them and what an adult figures out later. Youn Yuh-Jung has played more than a few unconventional grannies of late in hernative South Korea, and there's a liveliness to Soon-ja that doesn't hide her wisdom but intertwines with it. Like her daughter, she sees things pretty clearly and approaches them directly rather than trying to outsmart a situation. She plays very well off young Alan Kim so that Soon-ja can simplify herself for a young boy without talking down to him. Will Patton does something neat with Paul, taking the sort of big tics that can look like someone trying too hard and always redirecting them into something that implies that living with what's in his head is harder for him than it is for the people who may find him off-putting. He may never quite seem natural, but it eventually goes from being stuff Patton is doing to what Paul is enduring.

It's a bit of a shame that there's not a whole lot of Noel Cho to do in here as Anne, but Chung kind of realizes this, and if she doesn't get the "I've been holding this family together" line that Sarah Bolger got in In America, there's something maybe a little better in the way Chung and the movie acknowledge that the smart and sensible daughter often gets overlooked in this situation and shouldn't be. It's one of many details that are sometimes surprising because they're not the easy storytelling choice but nevertheless ring true even as they push things a certain way. There are two or three moments, for instance, when it looks like the audience may be in for some racism, but Chung finds a way to handle the moment in a way that's hopeful and keeps the emphasis on the Yis but also gets across that it's a heck of a thing to have hanging over you. The characters go to church, but it feels like a complicated relationship, and there's a great deal of sympathy for the people out there living tough lives, acknowledging that often you can't just work your way out of a situation without being fatalistic. I love the attention paid to how David and Anne tend to default to English when talking with each other but Korean with their parents and grandmother, and then sometimes switch to Korean when they are surrounded by monolingual local kids.

Minari is also a nice-looking film, with bright solid colors and a way of framing practical everyday things without mythologizing them and production design that doesn't just nail the late 1980s but also recognizes that nothing in this situation is going to be new or fancy. It's an attitude that reflects just why this story works so well - it knows its characters, time, and place, and is sentimental about them without ever being trite. It's downright beautiful in both its comforting familiarity and personal, unpredictable detail.

Also at eFilmCritic

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