simon of the desert (luis buñuel, 1965)
music friday: csn&y, omd, s-k

minari (lee isaac chung, 2020)

The story of the Yi family in Minari is standard in most ways. The film isn't noteworthy because it breaks new ground in terms of storytelling. The basic story is familiar: American family moves across country hoping to make a new life, and are confronted with the problems of newness and the conflicts that develop when not all members of the family are on the same page. They try to create a successful farm while working day jobs. A standard situation ... except the Yi family is Korean (the kids are Korean-American). Their status as immigrants changes the story, but Lee Isaac Chung allows the familiar story to breathe, even as the Yi family's experience is different because of their background. The parents speak Korean to each other and to their kids, the kids speak English to each other and change smoothly between Korean and English when talking to their parents.

There is enough Korean spoken in the film that the Golden Globes gave it their Best Motion Picture - Foreign Language award, even though it takes place in the United States, and is written and directed by a man who was born and raised here. The Globes got some flack for this, and rightfully so. Minari shows a family in the process of becoming American, but the people in charge of the Golden Globes couldn't see past the Korean language.

Minari works for many reasons, and if the story is ordinary, the Korean perspective shines new light on that old story. Chung creates specific characters, not symbols, so while we see them as examples of the immigrant experience, it is more important how each character reacts to the new situation. Father Jacob is the one who prompted the move to Arkansas, and he is the one who most clearly wants to fulfill the American Dream. Mother Monica is out of place, not just in the community but in her family ... she and Jacob have had unspoken problems, and the move wasn't her idea. Young Anne is a typical kid, as is her younger brother David, but Chung draws a complex portrait of David ... he is practically the main character. Finally, there's Grandma Soonja, just arrived from Korea to help her daughter. She is unassimilated, and David, who is already an "American" whether or not he knows it, is suspicious of this woman, saying she isn't a real grandmother because she doesn't bake and because she "smells Korean".

This could all be sappy, but Chung mostly avoids that pitfall. The characters are interesting enough, and the setting of Koreans in Arkansas provides just enough difference from the otherwise standard narrative, so we are always engrossed in what happens. The film received six Oscar nominations, including two for Chung and one for Best Picture. Most noteworthy, because it reflects the movie's strengths, are the two acting nominations, Steven Yuen (Jacob) for Best Actor and Youn Yuh-jung (Grandma) for Best Supporting Actress. Yuen is wonderful, but when the envelope is opened, chances are extremely good that the name Chadwick Boseman will appear, and rightfully so. Youn has a better chance of winning ... I might go with Maria Bakalova from the new Borat film, but Youn has attracted a lot of love for her performance, and it would be a nice touch to see Youn, well-known and beloved in South Korea, win an Oscar at the same time that she is essentially introduced to American audiences at the age of 73. (She did have a small part in the late lamented Sense8.)

All of the above adds up to a fine picture. It's a deserving nominee for Best Picture, although my choice would be Judas and the Black Messiah (I've seen 7 of the 8 nominees so far). #551 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


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