A year ago, no narrative feature at the 2020 Sundance Festival stirred more general enthusiasm than Minari, which won both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards. Unlike many such Park City favorites, it actually held that momentum at year’s end, earning a still-in-progress slew of critics’ prizes and nominations (the Oscar candidates have yet to be announced). By odd chance, writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s breakout fourth feature is getting released simultaneously with Happy Cleaners, the debut feature from co-directors Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee, which first premiered almost two years ago. Thus we have two acclaimed new movies by first-generation Korean-Americans, fictionalizing the experiences of both their immigrant parents and their own age group.
It’s easy to see why Minari has made the bigger splash, as it’s got an offbeat fish-out-of-water premise and a more artfully melancholy, lyrical tenor. Autobiographically inspired, it has as the filmmaker’s avatar seven-year-old David (Alan Kim), who seems a cheerful, adaptable, normal kid, but is also the constrained object of much anxious familial hovering due to a congenital heart defect. His family was already just squeaking by in California. But now father Jacob (Steven Yeun) has insisted they move to mid-1980s rural Arkansas, to the considerable horror of mother Monica (Yeri Han). She finds their new “home” (a trailer on cement blocks in a remote field) appalling, and the general situation unworkable.
All this is so dad can realize a pipe dream of farming produce specifically to sell to the Korean émigré market. But he’s thought its practicalities out so little, he is very fortunate that a pious old coot of a field hand (Will Patton) offers to lend agricultural expertise. With both parents working long hours, the solution to minding David and his sister Anne (Noel Cho) ends up being the importation of grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh Jung). Mary Poppins, she’s not—indeed, she’s much more like that chainsmoking lady one slot machine over at the all-night casino. Still, her company turns out to be exactly what David needs, just as Patton’s Paul also emerges the seemingly ill-matched collaborator who nonetheless makes it possible for Jacob’s scheme to actually work.
The redemptive evolution of these relationships has a familiar seriocomic arc, and if Minari is duly charming, sometimes you might wish it were less scrupulously low-key. While the family’s culturally isolated situation is distinctive, its illustration is so gentle that the film risks slipping from sweet to merely slight. I’ll admit being a bit baffled by a movie I’d hurried to catch on my final Sundance day last January, swept into the theater by rave reports, only to experience something … nice. But the ongoing waves of praise since suggest that if Minari was a little too mild for my palate, it will strike a lot of people as exactly right. It’s currently playing available theaters, which in the Bay Area means no theaters; you can stream it via platforms including local ones Roxie Virtual Cinema and CinemaSF.
Pursuing the American Dream in a manner more typically associated with Korean immigrants are the protagonists in Happy Cleaners. The Choi’s (Charles Ryu, Hyang-hwa Lim) worked at a Flushing, New York dry cleaning business seven years before buying it from their prior bosses. A decade later, they’re laboring as tirelessly as ever, yet the “Dream” keeps receding. Nonetheless, they’re loathe to surrender the idea that somehow, someday, it will all pay off, particularly for their now-adult children.
Those thoroughly Americanized offspring aren’t having it, however, particularly as mom keeps trying to rule their own decisions with an iron fist. Daughter Hyunny (Yeena Sung) dutifully excelled at school and now works as a nurse. However, playing the good child role does not lessen her anger at pressure to dump longtime boyfriend Danny (Donald Chang), who’s deemed unsuitable because his family’s financial burdens are even worse than their own.
Son Kevin (Yun Jeong) is no scholar. But the different skills and ideas he does possess (mostly culinary/entrepreneurial) are brusquely dismissed by parents who can’t see that their own notions of “success” are outdated. Adding to the general discord is a fear that when the laundry’s lease runs out soon, the old landlord’s slickly obnoxious son will hike the Choi’s already sky-high rent—or kick them out entirely.
Happy Cleaners is more plainly crafted than Minari, with some pleasant if rather safe core elements (Korean-kitchen foodie porn, sitcomish dysfunctional-family humor), and pacing problems in its last third. But it also satisfyingly deals head-on with real world problems, especially of the economic kind. it’s true of nearly everyone here when Danny says of his own parents, “They worked hard every day of their lives and have nothing to show for it.”
The bitterness of how “the American Dream fell apart” for these characters, as well as the exemplary “model minority” conduct they’ve held themselves to (and gotten screwed for) is very well illustrated in a movie that never grows too preachy or somber. It’s a fairly lighthearted yet realistic pulse-taking of a phenomenon hardly limited to any particular U.S. ethic or generational group now: The sense that middle-class stability is a rug being slowly, inexorably pulled out from under us. Happy Cleaners has just released to On Demand platforms.
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Also dealing with problems of the pocketbook kind is Ray (Dean Imperial), a Queens native who drives for a slightly sketchy lost-luggage delivery service. But with younger brother (Babe Howard) in need of treatment for a mysterious viral fatigue syndrome, schlubby ’70s-mobster-looking Ray needs extra cash. So he heeds the call of CBLR, one of several companies hiring independent contractors to lay cable in the woods. It’s a little like Uber—no benefits, no employee status, just the promise of big bucks in one’s “free time” that somehow always ends up being considerably less than economically-strapped participants had hoped. It is also hard labor for a man whose prior idea of the Great Outdoors seldom extended beyond pushing a lawnmower across the front yard.
That scenario may sound bleak. But Noah Hutton’s slightly-sci-fi satire of gig economy work is in fact a bracingly original slice of absurdism, a woodsy slipping-white-middle-class companion piece to Boots Riley’s African-American urbanity in Sorry To Bother You, with a similar tenor of near-future whimsy. It’s a political critique ultimately as straightforwardly pro-worker as Norma Rae, yet as inspirationally silly as Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Lapsis is now available on digital and VOD platforms, as well as some virtual cinemas.
The challenges facing a solitary male in the “wild” take quite a different form in Santa Cruz-born Jordan Graham’s feature. Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) lives in a deep-woods cabin somewhere in Nor Cal, well off the general grid even if he does have electricity (sometimes.) His is a solitary existence, despite having family members nearby. Does he mostly avoid them for his safety, or for their own? He also seems very preoccupied by the deer cams he’s placed on trees in the surrounding area—and it’s not deer he’s afraid might be creeping around.
Sator is a minimally, rather murkily plotted thriller of the type that sustains tension largely by keeping us guessing whether what’s going on here is a supernatural menace, or just a protagonist with mental health issues. (At the film’s festival debut in 2019, Graham explained the same question has arisen in his family: Indeed, he interweaves footage of his real-life grandmother discussing the “demon” she and a deceased relative believed communicated with them all their lives.) Though certainly classifiable as horror, the film does not bother springing a lot of conventional scares, and its narrative can be ambiguous to the point of outright confusion.
But it’s got a great, dense, dream-like atmosphere, realized in both spookily beautiful compositions and a highly worked sound design. (There’s no ordinary musical score.) While it’s a pity those strengths can’t be ideally experienced in a dark theater at present, they are potent enough to hopefully translate in home viewing. This endeavor is all the more impressive for being very nearly a one-man-show: Actors aside, Graham did nearly everything himself, even actually building the cabin Adam inhabits. If his solo handcrafting meant the film required years to complete, that surely helped amplify its obsessive, unsettling, dread-infused mood. Sator is currently streaming on major digital platforms including iTunes/AppleTV, Amazon, Google Play and Amazon.
The Edge of the World
Isolation is also central to this restored 1937 feature by Michael Powell. Later, in a long-term collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, he’d bring a hitherto unknown, highly aestheticized sensual exoticism to British cinema in such classics as The Thief of Bagdad, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes. But this first significant directorial project (after years spent cranking out an extraordinary number of low-budget “quota quickies”) is striking for entirely different reasons. Shot on location on an Outer Hebridean island, it applies a documentary directness to a fictive story of traditional life dying out amidst the pitiless march of “progress.”
On their “lonely isle of Foula” off the Scottish coast, a tight, terse, devout community has survived off fishing and sheep for centuries. But the modern world keeps encroaching, often stealing away the few things this society needs. Youth have invariably begun emigrating to the mainland, to the resentment of elders. That conflict comes to a head in the wedge driven into one family, which thwarts a planned marriage and leads to tragedy.
For all the florid, often studio-bound qualities of Powell’s later work, Edge is a model of economy, its stark beauty as well as melodrama determined by the grave dangers of sea and cliffs. Eight years later Powell and Pressburger would make another Scottish island tale, the far better-known Know Where I’m Going! But I actually prefer this earlier, less-twee film. It’s currently playing BAMPFA’s virtual cinema as a members-only selection, providing as good a reason as any to join up.