From Seoul to Soul (Film Thoughts: Minari)

I immigrated to the United State with my mom and dad in 1984 so I cannot help but feel a certain affinity for Lee Isaac Chung’s ‘Minari,’ an immigrant story of sorts set around the same era. In the film, a Korean family moves to Arkansas from California. But you need not have that same back stpry to appreciate the film – anyone can relate and feel for the characters in this wonderful film. This is one of my favorite films of 2020, a healing tonic to everything we’ve gone through the past year. It’s a film that aches and soothes at the same time.

And it is driven by wonderful performances. Steven Yeun is magnificent as Jacob, the father who has a classic American dream – he wants to succeed in something and wants his kid to witness it. And Yeri Han as Monica gives a quiet and gorgeous performance as his wife – who goes along for the ride and sees what it does for her family. A lesser actress could have easily given a shrill performance in the same role.

The film is named after a Korean herb that stubbornly grows anywhere – it’s obviously a metaphor for the family. There is a persistence in the American dream experience, and this film tells an effective variance of that. story. Our stories all have the same framework, but wonderful storytellers infuse them with specific that make each one unique. This film is exceptional in telling.

Flame Burns (Film Thoughts: Burning)

burningFilms are there mostly for entertainment. Once in a while, a film leaves me really baffled – in a very good way.  After watching Lee Chang-dong’s ‘Burning,’ I have more questions than answers, and I actually had to read a very long thread on Reddit about it – something I very rarely do – to get some clarification, only for me to be more confused about it.  There are so many scenes in the film, especially, in the beginning that, as you are watching, will not make sense. But Dang-chong put it there for a reason, and each of them form a small piece in a big puzzle, and by the end of the film, you are left to piece it all together. But, really, I have no idea what I just watched, and now I have this, ehem, burning desire to learn. Perhaps that is the real point of the film.

But on surface, the film is kind of a love triangle between Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) Shin Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) and Ben (Steven Yuen) Lee and Hae-mi are childhood friends, although it took a while for Lee to remember that. When Hae-mi goes to Africa, she comes back with Ben and we get an emotional tug-of-war between the three. Ben could be a psychopath who takes Hae-mi under his wing, and afterwards may be responsible for her disappearance. We don’t really know and part of the mystery here is looking for all the signs that point to some kind of conclusion for the viewer. I wish I could say that I have successfully put everything together, but I have not. Based on all the online discussion about the film, I think I have barely scratched the surface. But one thing is for sure, though: I have not stopped thinking about the film, its characters, and I am craving for some kind of resolution. I think this is an indication of how brilliant the film is. It makes you think and ponder.

 

Spa In the Closet (Movie Thoughts: Spa Night)

large_spa-night-poster-2016I have been wanting to see ‘Spa Night’ for a while now, as I have heard a lot of great things about it when it was shown at Outfest in Los Angeles last year. Finally, I have and it was worth the wait. Directed by Andrew Ahn, this film tells the story of David (Jo Seo) as an eighteen year old closeted Korean-American son of immigrants in modern day Los Angeles, specifically in the Koreatown area. In the beginning of the movie, we see him helping out in his family restaurant. But they lose the business. That’s about it for plot, but the movie is a lot more than that – it’s a study of how the American Dream can pull a family apart, it;’s about a young man trapped in his own desires. The film is a coming of age movie that explores the lament of melancholy.

the film is an interesting watch, visually. It is kind of sparse, dialogue-wise, but no way do we feel cut short by it. After the family loses the restaurant, he becomes the default ‘saving grace’ of the family, pressured into taking the SATs so he could get in University of Southern California. He knows he isn’t equipped for that type of life. At the same time, he starts working at an all-male spa, and he sees all the shenanigans going on there, and he desperately wants to join as he is told to police them. Seo is fantastic in the role, essaying the desperation, the inner desire of David so convincingly. Though if I may be a little honest, it does seem kind of weird for the character David to be so gay-sheltered, as Koreatown in Los Angeles is not that far from West Hollywood, the gay mecca capital of the city. Surely he has had other interactions with gay people in such a gay-centric town.

This film might seem like it is only for the lonely, but I bet it will touch everyone.