I entered “Minari” expecting the movie to be a crowd pleaser, like a well-dressed Asian blending into whiteness. As the movie unfolded, however, I realized how wrong I was. Unabashedly honest, movingly real, this film is a crowd-pleaser all right, but without any of the trappings of what an audience trained on the Karate Kid franchise can expect.
There are none of the usual compensations made for accent, language, culture or Asian identity. It’s wholesome in its utter lack of white conformity.
Director Lee Isaac Chung’s screenplay about the challenges that a first generation Korean family face as they try to adapt to their surroundings is at once a story about dislocation, the ruggedness of America’s geography, and the fragile sensibilities of an immigrant family struggling to cohere.
The movie was nominated for six Oscars, and its matriarch Youn Yuh-jung carried home the prize for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the inventively cantankerous grandmother Soon-ja who arrives from Korea; the plot centers around her character’s interferences.
Yuh-jung’s award broke the Hollywood pattern of ignoring Asian actors as artistes since 1957 when Miyoshi Umeki won Best Supporting Actress award for her role in the Korean War drama “Sayonara,” a movie which perpetuated the Asian female identity as submissive and acquiescent, even as it tried to bridge the gap between two cultures separated by a vast ocean.
“Minari” is a poignant and illuminating tale about the Yi family. Jacob Yi, played by Steven Yeun, buys 50 acres in Arkansas, and the family, consisting of his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and children, 6-year-old son David (Alan S. Kim) and older daughter Anne (Noel Cho), leave California to manage a rural farm. The central tension is between Jacob and Monica. From the very beginning Monica disapproves of the move and their changed circumstances.
The scenes are mobile even during moments of quiet, like Monica conveying her anxiety by picking at threads on a comforter, the children making paper planes with the words “don’t fight,” and the scene of togetherness when the family sleep curled around each other on the floor. These were not roles being enacted, but sets being lived in, as each actor worked to uplift the other.
Ultimately “Minari” is the Asian American story.
In somewhat striking contrast, the Filipino American movie “Bitter Melon” is filled with dialog. Often smart and witty, the conversations are both revelatory and inhibitory as each scene is built up and dismantled. All manner of family dysfunction is exposed as the three sons of the Santos family meet for Christmas at their mother’s house in San Francisco. The oldest, Moe (Brian Rivera), is a recovering addict, the middle son, Troy (Patrick Epino) has violent tendencies with a history of domestic abuse, and the gay youngest, Declan (Jon Norman Schneider), struggles to reconcile his family’s attitude to his sexual preferences. Prisa (Josephine de Jesus), the mother, in many ways, suffers, enables and perpetuates the continuation of trauma within the family.
Written by director H.P. Mendoza, the movie is loud, colorful, flavorful and chaotic and wholly San Franciscan. The script is outstanding with dark humor, subtext and commentary: “As a native San Franciscan I never experienced racism until I came out of the closet … All the talk of equality and getting rid of hate speech and eradicating stereotypes, the gay community has an awesome way of making people of color feel like they’re second class citizens. Anyone tries to call out their racism, “Oh relax, it’s a f—-ing joke!”
“Bitter Melon” is a tragicomedy that upends many stereotypes about Asians.
Making her directorial debut with “The Valley,” a serious Indian American offering, Saila Kariat, attempts to detach the various elements of a tragedy that’s rooted in family.
The script, written by Kariat, is about a rich immigrant entrepreneur Neal (Alyy Khan), whose carefully built, seemingly perfect life disintegrates when his younger daughter, Maya (Agneeta Thacker), commits suicide. Neal becomes obsessed with uncovering the reason for Maya’s death. And it appears that there is more than one cause. The movie, which is set in Silicon Valley, focuses a creative lens on the mental health toll that accompanies overweening ambition and aspiration.
For Kariat, Maya’s struggles amid a culture of high pressure and expectations are deeply personal. “This resonates with me because my brother struggled with mental health issues, and the pressures of being an academic disappointment and saving face in the Indian community were too much for him. He never got the help he needed and as a result, had a lonely and difficult life,” she wrote in an email. Indeed, it’s a relentless story that’s echoed across the community to some degree.
Kariat mentioned that the climactic scene “in which the characters are most revealed to each other and to the audience,” was one that stood out to her. It is the scene where Neal confronts his own vulnerabilities as a father, a husband and a human.
The scene that haunts is the one with Maya sitting on a chair in the backyard of their Atherton home, contemplatively staring into a shimmering swimming pool, while the sounds of a party—a staging ground for condescension and conformity—are in full progress inside.
Much has been written and said about the emotional deficit behind zealous parenting, but it bears repeating. “The Valley” works as an ambitious idea that reveals the dangers behind the immigrant push to succeed.
How to watch:
“Minari” on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, VUDU, among others
“Bitter Melon” on Amazon Prime
“The Valley” on https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thevalleymovie
Jaya Padmanabhan is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.