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Minari: An Evaluation of Family and Self

The current state of popular cinema makes telling the stories of first-generation immigrants a bit of a tightrope walk. Just last year, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite won best picture at the Academy Awards in a historical win for Korean-Americans and more generally, Asian people (not that we should be considered singular by any means). This marked a shift, along with 2016’s Moonlight, towards the current identity politics mission statement and tokenization of ethnicity; the notoriously well-awarded Green Book ultimately was an exercise in white guilt, yet still won best picture. And only a year prior to this, John M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians marked the first Hollywood production in 25 years that could boast an all-Asian cast. With the startling statistic tied to this film it would be remiss of anyone to not see the unfortunate torch that this picture was forced to bear. The unfair positioning around the very specific Crazy Rich Asians being the model for “the” Asian-American immigrant story is braindead and only furthers the cycle of dehumanization that immigrants experience on an all-too-frequent basis. Asian-American representation in popular media has made little progress past the orientalist framework that white executives have propagated to tell us “this is where you stand”. Looking past identity politics, immigrant stories can be extremely hard to tell; often layered with struggles of insecurity in leaving what you’ve known your entire life, the suffocating isolation felt when there are no communities of people that look like you, and generational trauma placed on parents and children. How does one put these feelings into words and images? Yet despite the discourse that surrounds Asian-American immigrant stories every year, I still find myself excited at the prospect of seeing my family’s history told on screen, and with Michelle Zauner’s early stamp of approval (Michelle is a God in my eyes), Minari was no exception. Michelle was absolutely correct, Minari triumphs above any discourse centered around identity politics by not giving these discussions any wiggle room to focus on and rather centers itself around the intimacy of family and individual acceptance of self.

Minari is the story of Korean-American immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri) as they look to escape their Arkansas-based chicken sexing jobs, uprooting their life in California with their two children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho) so that they can make something of their own.  David has a heart condition that does not allow him to enjoy the wonderment of childhood that other children his age are able to.  With Jacob’s excitement to start this new life with a farm that will grow Korean crops, the audience (and Jacob) quickly grasp at the idea that this is what building a life for your family in America should look like. Monica, however, is not sold on this idea. She worries that Jacob’s agrarian ambitions will place more strain on the Yi family than is worth. Not to mention she is shown throughout Minari feeling isolated and in need of community (this issue absolutely exacerbated by their new rural home). Monica’s doubts are confirmed by seeing Jacob spiral as the family loses county water because of Jacob’s redirection of the water line to the farm and produce buyers constantly screwing him over. Monica also worries that Arkansas storms put their family at risk showcased in a yelling match early on in Minari. The decision is made that Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-Jung) will relocate from Korea to Arkansas and live with the Yi’s.

Soon-ja is the beating heart of Minari. Her crass behavior and constant fight to win David’s love and approval provide for some of the most tender moments of the film. David is apprehensive to accept Soon-ja because she doesn’t fit the American model of what grandmothers should be. According to David, Soon-ja “smells Korean” (Anne’s retort that David hasn’t even been to Korea is one of my favorite lines that will surely go overlooked), doesn’t bake cookies, curses, gambles, and sits on her butt drinking Mountain Dew watching wrestling all day. With David looking to grasp onto any sense of identity he can, it is obvious why he is apprehensive to accept Soon-ja (David reminds me a lot of my father and myself). Yet Soon-ja’s presence is invaluable; bringing familiarity to struggles with isolation, combating dour economic situations with levity, and maybe most importantly Soon-ja plants the film’s namesake crop just on the edge of the Yi property.  

The choice to make minari the savior of the narrative is obvious: minari is a swiss army knife crop that grows like wildfire and is used in a variety of ways across different Asian cultures. Minari can be used in salad, stew, pancakes, kimchi, and medicinally. The water dropwort’s obvious allegory for rooting life in foreign land is clear, yet I can’t help but read that minari also represents a reckoning with generational misunderstandings and the resiliency of family. Jacob and Soon-ja fundamentally approach agriculture in opposite ways. Jacob attempts to grow a variety of crops with the intention of the water coming to him. He rejects a well-finder at the beginning of the film, vaunting his Korean pride in regard to his ability to find a well himself. Soon-ja grows one crop and goes to the water herself, and ultimately Soon-ja’s approach bails the Yi’s out of a devastating crop fire and Jacob becomes a minari supplier. Jacob appears happier by the end of the film now that his marriage has been saved – in contrast to his initial hesitance to let Soon-ja live with his family. David also begins to ease up on Soon-ja as the two get closer during late-night shenanigans, and David’s ease turns to full blown love and appreciation for Soon-ja’s presence.

Minari finds success by telling a gentle immigrant story with visually warm and slightly overexposed imagery in moments of intense humanity, seen best when David serves Soon-ja urine instead of Mountain Dew, while allowing its characters to experience joy, forgiveness, and acceptance (which can be very rare in immigrant stories). Through all the terms and expectations that will be thrown at Minari, the story remains distinctly Korean-American. I see my grandfather in Jacob’s character. My grandfather was a similar age to Jacob when he moved to this country with my grandmother.  The couple and their son (my father) settled down in Washington, DC with no money, no car, a rudimentary knowledge of the English language, and no friends except for one man that served with my grandfather in Vietnam. And despite the lack of resources at my family’s disposal, 3 days after arriving in DC, Papa found a job as a cashier at a 7/11 for $2.10 an hour.  For two years, my grandparents worked 2-3 part-time jobs at a time to save money for their own business, and in 1975, rented out a vacant gas station in Northern Virginia. But the Northern Virginia winters are very cold, and the couple could only handle greasy, cracked, and bloodied hands for so long before lusting to work indoors. After a year of pumping gas, Papa purchased a grocery store from two holocaust survivors looking to retire, and knowingly or unknowingly, planted the seeds that would support his family for generations. From the moment Papa was hired as a 7/11 cashier, he has not stopped working full-time until now at the age of 80, where he is only working part-time. Talking with him the other day, we laughed as he told me he finally feels as if he’s allowed to have some down time and is pursuing a second master’s degree in theology this fall. Papa told me that living in a country that was constantly unable to support itself lit a fire in his heart to provide for his family every breathing moment of his life.

As mentioned earlier, I see my father and myself in David. The youthful impulse to blend into your surroundings, behave like kids that don’t look similar to you, rejecting older relatives’ gestures of love because you would rather have Coke over herbal tea. These were choices I unknowingly made that damaged my sense of self for an unseen time to come. Only recently have I come to love my Korean-American identity yet am still picking up the pieces. If it were not for these unbelievably strong individuals, like Lee Isaac Chung and Michelle Zauner, willing to tell parts of their stories, I would still harbor hate for this side of myself but because of them I do not have to. Healing is an ongoing process, though, and lots of work still needs to be done. However, stories like Minari help ease that process by providing me with strength through shared experience.

Minari is screening online or at a theater near you.

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Under the Influence – Leigh’s Meantime and The Safdies’ Good Time

If you are anything like me, the Criterion Closet tour videos are one of the most trustworthy vessels for film recommendations around. There is a certain catharsis achieved in watching your favorite filmmakers become immediately giddy with excitement when discussing the films that hold a dear place in their heart. And for my money, the Safdie brothers’ visit to the closet remains steadfast at the top of the list of closet visits. After some brief commotion regarding Josh’s stolen Norman Mailer Eclipse set, the first film they dive into is none other than Mike Leigh’s Meantime (1983). This moment doesn’t muster any particular excitement for someone unfamiliar with Mike Leigh’s work, yet Josh and Benny’s overwhelming enthusiasm to riff on what Meantime means to them is infectious. Upon viewing Meantime for the first time I found myself bewildered how this plotless, slice-of-life Channel 4 picture had influenced so much of these burgeoning auteurs’ ideological project. Meantime’s influence is never more apparent than in the Safdies’ initial mainstream success, Good Time (2017).

On paper, these films’ narratives appear diametrically opposed. Meantime follows a working-class family’s aimlessness during times of mass unemployment under the fist of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Good Time is a robbery-gone-wrong thriller starring a former teen idol reinventing his image. Yet Leigh and the Safdie brothers are infatuated with the world they live in, albeit in London or New York, and do not stray away from these worlds. However, the Safdies dress New York up in heightened visuals and outlandish scenarios where Leigh dresses London down trough mundane dialogue and lack of plot. But burrowed under these stories, or lack thereof, political, racial, and economic similarities, framed through the lenses of two brothers, keeps the heart of these two pictures beating. 

The Conservative-Liberal coalition’s recipe for turning things around amounts to more Thatcherism—more cuts in government spending, particularly welfare benefits; more privatization; more deregulation. So far, it has failed dismally; the limits to Thatcherism are more apparent than ever.

Early on there is a moment in Meantime where Mark, Colin, and their father, Frank visit the unemployment office to apply for the dole. Each interaction these characters have with the office worker reinforces what we about them: Colin is a bit slower filling out his application, Frank becomes defensive when told to wait, and Mark is a know-it-all angry at the society Thatcher so boisterously denounced Yet there’s a microcosmic prop in this scene that is only highlighted by Mark’s bitterness towards the dole office worker, a pen.

Acting as a totem for Thatcher’s austerity program the pen becomes a summoning point for turning the personal characterizations toward the explicitly political. After Colin chews on the pen the dole office worker throws it right into the garbage (this plays out comically until Mark’s turn with the worker). When the worker asks for Mark’s pen back, he fires off “Our pen!” and slams it on the counter. The direct comparison her seems to be unemployment and denial of upward mobility. “We are not talking about your jobs; we’re talking about our jobs” is the rallying cry made by Mark right before this moment.

Mark realizes he and those around him are trapped by the austere decisions that never considered them. Public services have been slashed, jobs are unavailable, and the only activity available is to toil and wait. Leigh himself believes that the education system had failed Mark and should have nurtured his intelligence in a positive & proactive direction, rather than a bitter and aimless direction.  Yet without these services, Mark must hand this pen back to those that are denying him from opportunity.

The pen motif returns quietly in Good Time when Connie, an unemployed individual who becomes a small-time bank robber, approaches the bank teller in the film’s opening robbery. This confrontation is not over the top. Connie does not wave a gun in her face or start holding hostages as you might expect from a Michael Mann thriller. He uses a pen to take money from the institution that capitalistic governments work so hard to bail out. And his intentions for doing this are to provide his brother a life that the government has deemed as a lost cause. The poor state of disability services has failed Nick, Connie’s developmentally disabled brother, just as they failed Colin. Instead of being fated to Colin’s life of nothingness, Nick’s fate lies in the carceral state, and Good Time becomes a parable on desperation, like Meantime before it. Connie may be the immediate reason Nick was sent to Riker’s Island, but only on the predicate of a country gaining its feet post-recession and the consequences the working class is forced to face.

With the dire economic conditions in the worlds of Meantime and Good Time, these main characters do not have the means to fall back on anything except their skin color. Never is this more apparent than in Coxy and Colin’s venture to Haley’s housing project. While waiting for an elevator, the two encounter a Jamaican man, not too distant in age from themselves, and tension starts to escalate. Leigh and Oldman show us Coxy’s deeply seated insecurity through his racist proclivity to start a scuffle with the Jamaican man after asking “I’m all white, you all white?”.  Throughout the altercation Coxy feels the need to assert himself by ridiculing the way the man speaks (Leigh touches on the idea of elocution later with Aunty Barbara’s superiority complex over Mark). Coxy antagonizes through plausible deniability, operating in liminal spaces of trust and safety afforded by white privilege, an experience shared with Pattinson’s Connie.  

Connie uses Crystal, Dash the security guard, and even the Domino’s Pizza employee on his chase for an idealized life with Nick, without any remorse for how his privilege affect these individuals. Connie is aware that the color of his skin provides him with a certain privilege that other characters are not afforded (the dark-skinned masks used during the robbery sequence show this). The police do not question that Connie broke into Adventureland and immediately profile a drugged Dash as the perpetrator. There is no follow up with the security footage immediately illustrating the institutional racism that plagues policing in America. And while this moment is the most on-the-nose depiction of institutional racism in America, the following sequence with Connie and Ray breaking into Dash’s apartment tells a similar tale with more nuance. Connie and Ray commandeer Dash’s apartment to organize a drug deal on their own agenda. The two put no second thought into the fact that they’re ostensibly gentrifying this Black man’s apartment by virtue of their own skin color. Connie and Ray fail to realize that even when a Black person has followed the American ideal of picking yourself up by your bootstraps, white people still have a capacity to come in and take from people who are deemed less than. This is where Meantime and Good Time diverge. Meantime is targeted at a group of people like Mark, whose experiences are mirrored in this tale, yet Good Time’s audience fail to see their own experience mirrored in Connie and Ray.

Despite what statement I believe Leigh and the Safdies are making, it’s undeniable that these two films are stories about brothers. Family, similar to privilege within this economic context, is a fall back for these characters. Connie and Nick have nothing but each other. Mark and Colin have nothing but each other. The parental figures in their live have a way of blaming their children for personal insecurities and drive their children away from them. This insecurity radicalizes Mark and Connie but forces Colin and Nick to retreat inward. Mark and Connie are very protective of Colin and Nick as any older brother would be. But Mark and Connie also understand their brothers’ have been marginalized by society and fight for their brothers’ voices to be heard.

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Blog Filmic Fits

Filmic Fits – Fallen Angels

Upon the first viewing of Wong Kar-Wai’s spiritual successor to Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995) leaves viewers with an array of messy emotions and takeaways.  Wong picks up the grimy, neon-lit, and shadow soaked universe he dropped off in the leading section of Chungking, and follows five more characters: A Killer, his business partner, a blonde, a nonverbal eccentric, and a depressed woman looking for the sex worker that stole her ex. Divided by two narratives having very little to do with each other-save for a handful of casual encounters-the audience is taken on a motorcycle ride set at double speed through several nights of these characters’ lives. And while Wong is hyper focused on the loneliness and desire for connection these characters possess, costume designer William Chang outfits them in pieces that could fill any streetwear inspo lookbook and still personalizes their psyches.

She is the blueprint!

“no e-girl will ever be as 90s as this movie”

1990s fashion has been in vogue for the greater part of the last decade, for better or worse. Whether the reference point is Kids, Clueless, or Fallen Angels (all coincidentally released in 1995), internet kids and big-name house designers alike have more than enough room to pay homage to this era or blatantly cherry-pick the best, and worst, trends of the era. The fits in Fallen Angels reflect two different sides of fashion school archetypes: the hypebeasts and the e-girls, with both factions finding their roots in established trends and designers. Leon Lai’s Killer is the blueprint for the former group.  The kit never wavers: Black pinstripe jacket, a half buttoned black oxford with a white mesh tank underneath, baggy black linen pants, and silver chain link necklace only missing a rollercoaster clasp from the now iconic (or infamous) Alyx 1017 necklace. The entire package recalls something Rei Kawakubo or Rick Owens would feature on a runway. Baggy black business attire dressed down oozes cool when paired with the act of killing (but I’ll touch on this a bit later).

And then there is Michelle Reis’ Agent with too many looks to handle. Whether she rocks a skin-tight leopard top just waiting to be captured by a Mac Photo Booth Selfie or a silk dress on an empty subway commute, she always finds a way to put everyone else in frame to shame. Yet her most iconic fit comes within the first five minutes. She is on the way to a routine cleaning of the Killer’s filthy Hong Kong flat in an all-black leather dress, choker around her neck, fishnet leggings, black stiletto heels and a black purse with a metal strap that evokes a Gucci Dionysus handbag. The comical nature of dressing up to housekeep empowers those who have decried function over form and all viewers alike that there’s no occasion too mundane to look your absolute best.

Emotional Establishment

From the opening shot, Chang and Wong waste no time establishing each character’s personal style. Christopher Doyle’s opening close-up bars us from seeing the rest of her outfit until the next scene, so what are Wong and Chang trying to present? We know nothing of the Agent’s character at this point except what we are shown, and the accessories embody the statement. Bangs over her eyes, cigarette nuzzled between her fingers, and a big ol’ glass ring resembling a rose lies on her index finger.  It’d feel futile to explain what a rose symbolizes – as this is obvious- but the choice to place a glass rose on the Agent’s finger shows us what we need to know. From jump, we see through the lie she tells the audience and herself, “I’m the practical kind/ I know how to make myself happy”. We know she wants to feel more than a business relationship with the Killer; her bangs curtain her eyes to inhibit the Killer from seeing what is inside. Unlike the killer, the audience can see through this, just as we see though glass.

Mob Mentality

Wong Kar-Wai is the master of forming an aesthetic through stylistic choices, whether it is a red-green filter over every shot or having Frankie Chan sample a Massive Attack track for a recurring score motif. This eye for glamour is ever present in the ensemble of pieces that comprise the Killer’s look. The black pinstripe jacket harkens back to the Italian-American mobsters of the 1930’s. The Killer is, well, a killer after all. The choice does not feel too on the nose, however; the pinstripes are subtle and only noticeable when Karen Mok’s Blondie shines a light through the jacket to dry it. In fact, the only time the Killer is not portrayed as the cliché man in black is this moment. The Killer borrows a blue tee and jeans from Blondie, completely stripping away any mysticism the character retains. By just going home with Blondie, he is acting on his own volition (something he admits happens seldomly). Recalling an earlier scene in the film, the Killer admits that he has a desire to participate in commonplace occasions (like attending a wedding). It is no coincidence that the one time the Killer does act on a personal desire, he has briefly cast away this violent lifestyle.