Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 17, 2021 6:00 pm 
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Asian Americans get an iconic story, understated and touching

Minari is a very low-keyed, personal, authentic film about Korean-Americans in Arkansas whose widespread success with critics and viewers astonishes in view of how much it avoids conventional markers or payoffs. Little things like serving grandma a glass of piss, sailing paper airplanes at squabbling parents with "DON'T FIGHT" printed on them, or a little crop of a weed-like plant called minari by a stream - these are events as important as anything else in this unshowy slow-burn of a movie. It's coolness of presentation caused a negative reaction in The New Yorker's writer Richard Brody, who has described the film as a "narrow and merely illustrative drama [that] is matched, unfortunately, by an impersonal cinematography that fails to suggest texture or intimacy."

This might indeed be the reaction of an admirer of Da 5 Bloods, who might be momentarily out of tune with an Asian detachment of style and restraint of behavior. Brody appreciates the feisty grandma, Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), who comes to liven things up ("She is wise and loving," Broody writes, "gruff and tender, profane, impulsive, and fiercely devoted to her bright and burdened grandson.") In his typically detailed summary, Brody appears well able to engage with the action. His negative reaction to the style feels arbitrary and external.

Most critics seem ecstatic so Brody's appears an outlier view, but we have to acknowledge the minimalism, the austerity, the outright flatness of Minari's style he reacts adversely to. There's a defiance in it that underlines its personal-ness, and unwillingness to please or impress, that fits with the pivotal relationship of Soonja with her eight-year-old grandson, David (Alan S. Kim). Note that while Soonja suffers a cataclysmic setback, David is the one family member (and putatively the stand-in for the writer-director) who gets an unmitigated success story. His father Jacob's Korean produce crop is knocked back repeatedly, by loss of water, loss of Texas customers to California growers, even loss of product to fire. Jacob and Monica's union hovers on the verge of dissolution. But David's heart problem, so severe he's forbidden to run, turns out to be righting itself. Note that the doctor has to tell them this is good news, and even then they don't react visibly as the scene ends.

This is a film that requires us to internalize the action and ponder it. We're in it for the long haul, not the payoffs. We aren't fed dramatic markers or modeled reactions, but must find them. I'd say it's the richer for this. This is, after all, a story that needs no fanfare for many in this country of immigrants. The hardships here are those of many, but not all. What fits a great number is how it is for the foreign born who have American children and see them take a foothold in this country they may have had to struggle for. Some, like a Korean friend of mine, come here essentially as already qualified professionals and avoid the tough row to hoe. But David's choice is classic: he will work at the boring job of chicken sexing he's so good at so he can fund an enterprise, raising and selling Korean vegetables for the burgeoning immigrant market. He wants to build a business that will take a few years to get started.

As Vanity Fair's Anthony Breznican explains in a recent article typical of many now, Lee Isaac Chung's "semi-autobiographical story" about "young Korean immigrant parents" who take their family "to rural Arkansas" to start a farm "defies categorization in many ways." It is "a tearjerker, a comedy, a coming-of-age story, and a kind of adventure, all in one." It also is an American film, made and set in America with American actors released by the winning young American distributor A24 - but, confusing categories, having over half its dialogue in Korean. People have been thrown off by this. Minari was listed as a foreign film for the Golden Globes but is currently a regular best picture contender in the Screen Actors Guild Awards and a Best Picture leader for the Oscars. Americans are leery of foreign languages. They need to accept that families who speak something other than English at home are an American staple.

Minari is anchored by what may now be this moment's hottest Asian American actor, Steven Yeun. (He was recently celebrated in a lengthy New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Jay Caspian Kang.) Like the filmmaker, Yeun is the son of Korean parents but grew up in America. He was already a star to many, though not to me, when he appeared at the 2018 New York Film Festival's Q&A for Lee Chang-dong's thrilling film Burning, in which he has a sexy, mysterious key role. He has also played K in Bong Joon Ho's Okja. But I learned he was mainly known from an extremely popular TV series, "The Walking Dead" (which however the great New Yorker TV writer Emily Nussbaum has little use for, and her review of it doesn't even mention Yeun.) Yeun is brave and important in his role as Jacob, demonstrating that it is sexy to be a struggling, even failing immigrant.

It's hard to know how to place Minari but I found myself thinking of the Italian neorealist films of the post-War period and lighter films in their wake like Vittorio De Sica's Miracle in Milan. The latter's light, heartbreaking comedy fits with the disappointments and laughs of this Korean-American family. It's that humor that leavens the drudgery.

The white Americans are the colorful ones. There are astonishingly fat people the Korean family encounters when they start attending church to find friends. Before that, there is the very strange, ultra-religious Paul played by Will Patton, who helps Jacob with his farming, and is always throwing in exorcisms and hallelujahs, an oddity who is tolerated, as is David to the American boy who meets him at church and asks "why is your face so flat?" but then becomes his friend. Perhaps even scoffers will come to tolerate and then befriend this oddball, bravely personal movie.

Once again I have failed to notice a musical score, this one by Emile Mosser, which I'm told is very grand. What I noticed were the silences. (That's a good thing.)

Minari, 115 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020 and was included in at least a dozen of festivals, mostly in the US but also Busan and Valladolid, and winning an astonishment of accolades, 55 awards and 151 nominations. US theatrical release Feb. 12, 2021. Virtual release, Feb. 26. Metacritic rating: 89%.

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