Monday, March 29, 2021

Sons and Daughters: MINARI and THE FATHER

There’s something tender and tenuous at the heart of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, embodied in the central presence of an adorable little boy (Alan Kim) with a heart condition that could lead it to stop beating at any moment. He’s the son of recent Korean immigrants to the United States, where they’ve recently moved to Arkansas chasing the dreams of a father (Steven Yeun) who hopes to become a farmer. That his wife (Han Ye-ri) isn’t exactly on board is part of the family tension here, and the son and his sister (Noel Kate Cho) seeing it all gives the film an added layer of innocent curiosity, and impish bemusement. This isn’t the standard immigrant tale of the cliches that your head might autofill—no hardscrabble urban life or tenement tensions. Here is a small, intimate, closely-observed picture of family life and farm chores, loneliness and isolation, big dreams and comfortable homeland traditions. There’s something quintessentially American about this construction, some Steinbeck to its run-down farm home and acres of fields, and the honest toil it requires and toll it takes to make do and get by. The tensions here are not drawn out in easy ways a more familiar approach would take.

The film is small and sensitive, quietly imbued with a generosity of spirit in its wide open spaces. Here we sit with the plucky youngster’s medical issue, or the honey-coated small-town prejudices that threaten to spill over, or the plight of a wily mother-in-law (Youn Yuh-jung) flying in with her stubborn ways and fragile body and only sort of what her grandchildren think they want in a grandmother. This is a young family, and we see their growing pains—the displacement, the disagreements, the cross-purposes. Chung is a patient and compassionate filmmaker, whose great insight is to view each character’s perspective with understanding. We see the ambition of the father and the reticence of the mother, the tough exterior and sly glow of the grandmother, the chipper ups and downs of the children's lives. Best of all, the film doesn’t build to false crises or manipulative plot turns; it resits expectations in a pleasant way, always a little bit better than the movie you fear it might become. Instead it gently sits by as lives are lived, and a family puts down roots. No wonder a central metaphor is a divining rod; they're looking for a purpose to bring them together and guide their paths through the enormity of their potential. 

On the other end of family life is Florian Zeller’s The Father. It’s about an older family—an aging patriarch slipping into dementia (Anthony Hopkins) and his middle-aged daughter (Olivia Colman) who tries to help him as what was once clearly a formidable intellect disappears. He lives in his own flat in London, and his daughter needs to hire live-in help. Or maybe he’s moved into her flat, and she needs to hire day help. She’s married. Or maybe divorced. Or maybe moving to Paris. To the old man, every day seems much like the same. And some days are the same day. Time seems to loop back in on itself and he meets events coming and going. And one day, early in the film, his daughter walks in played by Olivia Williams instead. (That not only are her looks almost, but not quite, Colman’s, but the performer’s name is, too, adds to the layers of confusion.) Details shift. Connections drop. The man’s forever looking for his watch or tea, puttering around, opening doors that are sometimes leading to slightly different rooms. He’s living his own personal Exterminating Angel, that classic surrealist Buñuel film in which a dinner party’s guests are forever getting ready to, but never actually quite, leaving the house.

Zeller’s subtle filmmaking, and sharp script adapted from his play, with laser-focused characterization and casual glimpses of shifting context, puts us in the man’s state without ever quite leaving a grounded family drama; we can catch glimpses of it through the confusion, with just enough sense of the facts on the ground that we can track the events' logical progression. But he can’t keep up, and so retreats into his confusion, faking, or maybe just barely, understanding sometimes, other times breaking down in a fog. Hopkins work is raw and unfiltered, haltingly disappearing into this haze. Colman’s heartbreak and love reads in every gesture. The movie is achingly unflinching in its evocation of this terrible moment, where the curtains are about to be drawn on his life, and his family waits in a pendulous sense of duty and uncertainty, watching him slip away before he’s gone. His fear is palpable, as is his mortality. This is a picture of familial love at a moment of tested strength, and painful to consider. Yet this is also, in its way, a gentle film, kind to its characters even in its terrifying immediacy and sorrowful contemplation.

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