A Life Ahead March 9, 2021
On Minari and The World to Come
inari is a semi-autobiographical family drama set in the 1980s. Following the Korean-American Yi family's travails after restarting in
rural Arkansas, Lee Isaac Chung’s affecting new film is as much, to paraphrase the critic David Ehrlich, an immigrant story about a family trying to assimilate into a new country as it is a tale about its patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun), trying to assimilate into his family. (He's been trying to see through notions of the American dream for about a decade.)
It seems we have reached the point in Minari
where Jacob's long-standing preoccupation with finding success has begun to alienate his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), and their two children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim, terrific as Chung's young counterpart). Resentment about this latest move never fully dissipates. Monica especially didn't want to replant everything they had on the West Coast (they were last in California)
at this lonesome, bucolic spot that, as Jacob notes, "has the best dirt in America." (He bought this 50-acre Arkansas property near a creek with aspirations to grow Korean vegetables; he reckons that since there is an ever-enlarging diaspora in the South there will soon be a market for him to tap into.) Besides Jacob, nobody is that hopeful when they first see their new home. As this spacious property's bullseye, this blandly beige house-on-wheels looks dinkier than it would look on a more conventional lot. “This isn’t what you promised,” Monica says. When she tours her new home’s interior for the first time, she inches closer to an eruption. “It just gets worse and worse,” she groans.
Luckily, the Yis’ situation will, in contrast, superficially improve. Headway is made on the farm; the trailer gets homier. Eventually Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (a very funny Youn Yuh-jung), comes down to co-watch the kids and help minimize Monica’s swelling loneliness. But in this intimately drawn portrait, little else falls into place so simply. The Yis struggle to find kinship in this tiny community. At the local church where they attempt to forge some bonds, they’re near-immediately showered in as much true friendliness as clueless micro-aggression by the majority-white congregation. Monica finds her marital doubts escalating. While loving, Jacob seems more and more willing to put self-made success above immediate familial happiness perhaps to a destructive degree. (A climactic argument in Minari spouts from this very problem.)
Even Grandma’s easing into the family’s rhythms starts off awkwardly. (This is the first time she’s meeting David; she last saw Anne when she was a baby.) Because this tough-minded but warm woman doesn’t live up to the kids’ expectations of what a grandma should be (“she doesn’t bake cookies!” complains David), and because she is a walking reminder of a life from which the Yis have long been removed, she is, for a time, an almost unwelcome presence. All in Minari will end in a barely averted tragedy that reminds the Yis of their tenacity. Then, in what could have been an on-the-nose metaphor in a lesser movie (but which Chung earns emotionally), we check in on some minari Grandma planted by the creek at the beginning of the film. We learn that this plant — a green cooking vegetable that can be stationed basically anywhere damp and flourish — is thriving in a place with which it isn’t typically associated.
Minari isn’t a narratively top-heavy movie. It's an unflashy
but emotionally vivid collection of everyday triumphs, tediums, and tragedies. Presented without sentimentality or easy emotional destinations, much of the film should strike universal chords of familiarity with those who came of age in tight-knit, working-class households. (Chung, though, doesn’t underplay the specific: this family’s dreams versus the realities which undergird them; the different institutional forces which prevent ideal assimilation.) Soon, the succession of true-to-life, unshowy scenes sneakily accumulate to make something that feels bigger. You notice after a while that Chung has given this personal story a cinematic largeness. Little victories have a grandness; failures feel genuinely earth-shattering. (Something in no doubt assisted by Lachlan Milne’s frequently gorgeous cinematography: especially when putting nature’s majesty on a pedestal, Milne I’m sure intentionally evokes the breathtaking outdoor visuals of Terrence Malick’s defining 1970s output.)
This is a heartfelt (and frequently offhandedly funny) movie; the dialogue doesn’t have any false notes. But Minari, performed by an otherwise across-the-board-wonderful ensemble, maintains a distance that stymies greatness. The characters' inner lives remain mostly unexamined. We hardly know anything about their interests, what it was like for them before they came to Arkansas. (This is particularly true of Anne: aside from being characterized as the sensible, no-nonsense older sister, she's almost rendered a non-entity.) I yearned to see a family dinner, whether it found its characters lost in frivolous chatter or caught up in an uncomfortable stretch of telling silence. Still, Minari leaves an imprint in spite of its setbacks.
Steven Yeun and Alan Kim in 2021's Minari.
have become my grief,” says The World to Come
heroine Abigail (Katherine Waterston) at the beginning of the movie. Last December (the film begins on New Year’s Day, 1856), her young daughter
died of Diphtheria. Since then, her marriage — to an emotionally guarded farmer named Dyer (Casey Affleck) — has lost its color. She struggles to again grab ahold of the faith that once helped guide her. Suffocating sadness is momentarily relieved by painstaking journaling and other means of creative expression, but Abigail is ultimately overcome with an emptiness.
The banalities and disappointments of her life are suddenly framed anew when a couple (Vanessa Kirby and Christopher Abbott) moves in down the way. (The film is set in upstate New York.) Abigail takes an immediate liking to the wife, Tallie, who unlike the shy and inward Abigail is as assertive as she can be in a world conspiring to hold her back. Best friendship blossoms in mere days. Almost every afternoon is spent in the other’s company while their husbands tend to farmwork. But theirs is a connection that, after some time, appears to have a larger life than mere friendliness would inspire. Abigail begins noting in journals the difficulty of putting her feelings about Tallie into words. (A poignant comment not just because it’s true that romantic passion is hard to literarily give justice to but also because, in 1856, there wasn’t a precedent to which Abigail could turn to make sense of her feelings.) The women eventually recognize (and aren’t hesitant when the time comes) that romantic feelings are mutual. Until inexorably ending bittersweetly, the film appreciates the stolen kisses, the romantic picnics in the forests, the afternoons in front of the fire, as much as it can. “Astonishment and joy; astonishment and joy,” Abigail writes in her journal once she finds the words to elucidate her new love.
The World to Come is expectedly restrained. But director Mona Fastvold, in her follow-up to 2014’s The Sleepwalker, helms with perhaps too much moderation. The scene is set beautifully. Though momentarily over-flowery, the constant voiceover narration, which derives from Abigail's journals, evokes a miasma of longing. And Andre Chemetoff’s cinematography ekes out every drop of beauty he can from the Romanian countryside on which the movie was shot. (When Kirby sits next to a creek in one scene, her long mane of fire-red hair cascading down her back, the movie suggests a painting in the pre-Raphaelite tradition.) But the film never conveys even fleeting excitement very successfully — passion is unduly held back by the film's mannered presentation. But since its heroines are prevented from living fully, maybe it’s fitting The World to Come never totally comes alive.
The World to Come: B-