Minari (미나리, Lee Isaac Chung, 2020)

“Remember what we said when we got married? That we’d go to America and save each other. Instead all we do is fight” admits the failing patriarch at the centre of Lee Isaac Chung’s touching semi-autobiographical family drama Minari (미나리). Less a treatise on the elusiveness of the American Dream or the immigrant experience, Chung’s primary preoccupation is with the family itself seen partly through the eyes of the young David but also with the hindsight of adulthood in reconsidering the frustrated hopes and dreams of his parents as they find themselves divided not only by the fear and loneliness of trying to build a life in another country but by stubborn male pride and conflicting desires. 

The Yi family arrive for their new life in convoy, patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) leading in front driving a removal van and mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) following behind driving the family car with daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) in the passenger seat and son David (Alan Kim) in the back. Pulling up into the huge empty field to find a rundown trailer home which doesn’t even have steps up to the door, Monica is non-plussed. “This is not what you promised” she admonishes her husband with a force that suggests it isn’t the first time he’s disappointed her. Jacob, however, believes he’s found the new Garden of Eden, intending to root his family in the “best dirt in America”. His big dream is to plug a gap in the market by farming Korean fruit and veg to sell to the ever expanding diaspora community. 

Monica meanwhile is unconvinced, more concerned with immediate matters of practicality wondering if it’s really wise to have brought their son who has a heart condition out into the virtual wilderness an hour away from the nearest hospital. While making progress on the farm, the couple make ends meet with the same job they were doing back in California, sexing chickens, at which Jacob is apparently a dab hand while Monica struggles but is told that her efficiency is “good enough” for Arkansas. While he dreams, she concentrates on getting better at the job believing that if sexing chickens for the rest of her life is all there is it’s fine as long as its feeds their family. But Jacob remains stubbornly obsessed with making the farm a success no matter what it costs. Male chicks get discarded because in the end they have little use, they don’t taste good and they don’t lay eggs. “They need to see me succeed at something” he eventually tells his wife of the children even as she considers leaving him, too obsessed with his sense of male pride to admit the idea of failure. The last man who tried to farm his land apparently felt much the same, eventually taking his own life rather than live with the humiliation when the farm failed. 

“We can’t save each other” Monica concludes, realising that Jacob has chosen the farm or more accurately himself and his pride over their family and that she alone is in that sense shouldering the burden of their shared endeavour. Believing that his wife is most likely lonely, Jacob consents to inviting her mother to live with them (apparently a frequent source of their arguments), grandma Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) remembering a sentimental love song that they’d liked when they were first married but like the love itself have apparently forgotten. Her presence at first disrupts and then perhaps heals the fracturing family through an injection of Koreanness, her “foreignness” thoroughly alienating youngest son David who is forced to share a room with her but complains that she “smells like Korea” and refuses to drink the traditional herbal concoction she prepares for him. She doesn’t fit his Americanised image of the traditional “grandma” as a warm and cuddly woman who bakes cookies and tells stories. Direct if not severe, Soon-ja plays cards, swears liberally, and wears men’s underwear while enthusiastically watching the wrestling on television. David only begins to warm to her when she takes his side against his authoritarian father even though he’d played a rather cruel trick on her. 

Nevertheless it’s grandma who perhaps saves the family in the end, planting her minari seeds from Korea at a nearby creek, explaining that they grow best wild and are a versatile source of sustenance for anyone and everyone. Mother and father do in fact save each other, quite literally, as Jacob finally chooses his wife over his farm while little David’s condition unexpectedly improves, the hole in his heart beginning to repair itself even as his family faces greater strain. A tender tale of familial, cultural, and emotional integration Minari eventually finds peace and comfort in the resilience of the family unit held together by a grandmother’s foresight and the rediscovery of a long buried love. 


Minari is available to stream in the UK from 2nd April courtesy of Altitude Films.

UK Trailer

Lucky Chan-sil (찬실이는 복도 많지, Kim Cho-hee, 2019)

Life can be cruel and unpredictable. The titular heroine of Lucky Chan-sil (찬실이는 복도 많지, Chansilineun Bokdo Manji) thought she’d go on making movies with the same group of like minded people until the day she died only to have the rug pulled from under her by an ironic twist of fate that leaves her feeling worthless and exiled as if she’s wasted her youth on a one-sided love affair with cinema. What are you to do when your whole world collapses and you aren’t even sure who you are anymore? The answer, apparently, is to “dig deep”, maybe make a few mistakes, but figure out what it is you really want and then do that. 

The trouble is, all Chan-sil (Kang Mal-geum) had ever thought of doing was making movies. She’d been a long term producer to a notable indie auteur, but when he suddenly dies at the launch party for their latest film it leaves her without a career. Though a top industry figure had previously described her as the hidden gem of Korean cinema, a statement that seemed too effusive to be sincere even in the moment, she later tells her she doesn’t see the point in giving her a staff job because she’d only ever worked with the same director and for auteurs the producer is irrelevant. He would have made the same film without her or with literally anyone else. Even Chan-sil’s new landlady (Youn Yuh-jung) seems intent to put the boot in asking a genuine question as to what it is a producer actually does. Chan-sil tries to explain, but only ends up talking herself into another spiral of despair in wondering what exactly it was she was doing all these years. 

To ends meet she moves into room in a house lodging with an elderly woman who keeps a locked room Chan-sil is instructed not to enter. She also ends up becoming a cleaning woman/assistant to an eccentric actress friend with problems and insecurities of her own of which her timekeeping is only one. Sophie (Yoon Seung-ah) is also taking French lessons from secret indie filmmaker Young (Bae Yoo-ram), on whom Chan-sil gradually develops an awkward crush unsure in herself if she’s actually interested in him, in romance in general, or simply lonely and losing faith in cinema which she realises she had always used to fill the void of the emotional intimacy otherwise missing in her life. 

She is indeed a keen cinephile, going off Young when she tells him of her favourite filmmaker Ozu, only for him to admit he found Tokyo Story boring because “nothing happens” while expressing a preference for “entertaining” films like those of Christopher Nolan and retro hits from Hong Kong. That might be one reason Chan-sil finds herself haunted by a strange ghost (Kim Young-min) claiming to be Leslie Cheung and dressed in the white singlet and boxers he wore in an iconic scene from Days of Being Wild. Nevertheless, Leslie ends up being a sympathetic sounding board, giving her little bits of life advice and encouragement that finally allow her to rediscover her pure love of cinema aside from her industry betrayal. 

Director Kim Cho-hee draws on her own experience as a former producer who worked with the prolific Hong Sang-soo from 2008 to 2015 though her film is perhaps both a winking homage and rejection of Hongism. She opens with a Hongian title sequence featuring stark names against rattan, in itself a reference back to the Ozu Chan-sil claims to favour, before ironically expanding from 4:3 to a more comfortable widescreen as Chan-sil’s world implodes, killing of the indie auteur at a trademark Hong soju session. She also plays with doubling and symmetry, Chan-sil’s attempts to help her landlady learn to read cut against those of Young struggling to teach Sophie French while we learn that the landlady once had a daughter who loved movies and Chan-sil had a grandma who never learned to read or write. But unlike one of Hong’s self-obsessed directors, Chan-sil’s introspection has a more open quality, deciding that she wants to know what it is to really live while accepting that for her cinema is a part of that. Kim ends, literally, with the light at the end of the tunnel while a ghost applauds in a standing ovation, perhaps joining in with the audience as they celebrate Chan-sil’s success in finding her way out of a mid-life crisis and into a more positive future.


Lucky Chan-sil streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild

Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)

If you found a big bag full of money and then waited a while but no one came to claim it, what would you do? Many people would do as Jung-man (Bae Seong-woo) did, but sometimes gifts from the gods are sent to tempt you and are decidedly more trouble than they’re worth. Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul) is an apt way to describe our small group of interconnected protagonists, each desperately trying to get their hands on the money not necessarily for itself but for the power and possibility it represents or simply to free themselves from a debt-laden existence. 

Jung-man finds the Louis Vuitton bag stuffed inside a locker at his part-time job in a bathhouse. It seems that he is feeling particularly powerless because he’s somehow lost the family business and either never told his extremely domineering mother (Youn Yuh-jung) or she’s simply forgotten, often going off on crazed rants about how her daughter-in-law is secretly plotting to kill them all. Meanwhile, across town, immigration officer Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is desperately trying to find his missing girlfriend, Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), who has, apparently, run off with all his money leaving him in a difficult position with vicious loan shark Park (Jung Man-sik), and melancholy hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) is miserably trapped in an abusive marriage and plotting escape with the help of Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), an undocumented migrant from China she met in the club. 

As expected the streams will eventually cross, it is all connected, though it’ll be a while before we start to figure out how in Kim Yong-hoon’s tightly controlled non-linear narrative, adapted from the novel by Japanese author Keisuke Sone. Other than the money the force which connects them is powerlessness. Some of them, maybe all, are “greedy” but it’s not necessarily riches that they want so much as a way out of their disappointing lives. Jung-man feels particularly oppressed because he’s made to feel as if he’s failed his father by losing the family business, something he’s constantly reminded of by his ultra paranoid, domineering mother who eventually pushes his wife down the stairs provoking a crisis point in the foundation of the family. If working part-time in a bathhouse in his 40s hadn’t left him feeling enough of a failure, he is further emasculated by being unable to pay his daughter’s university tuition after she fails to win a scholarship and informs them she’s planning to take a term or two off to earn the money by herself. 

Tae-young is in much the same position, humiliatingly trapped by having foolishly co-signed his girlfriend’s loan only for her to disappear off the face of the Earth, leaving him wondering if he’s just a complete idiot or something untoward has happened to her. He thinks he can regain control of the situation by slipping further into the net of criminality, helping an old uni friend who’s committed large-scale fraud escape to China in exchange for a cut of the loot (and secretly plotting to nab the lot with the help of his shady friend Carp (Park Ji-hwan) who works at the club). 

A crisis of masculinity is also behind Mi-ran’s life of misery as her husband takes out his resentment towards his reduced circumstances on his wife, beating her mercilessly while forcing her to work at a hostess bar to pay off their debts from unwise stock market investments. For her, the money is both revenge and a pathway to a better life. She wants to be free of her husband, and profit in the process. Unable to do it alone, she manipulates male power in the lovestruck Jin-tae all too eager to play white knight to a damaged woman. But Jin-tae is male failure too. When all’s said and done he’s still an innocent boy, not quite prepared for the ugliness of causing a man’s death even if he is a wife beating tyrant the world may be better off without. As an undocumented migrant, he’s pretty marginalised too. Taking advice on how to solve the Jin-tae problem, a more experienced player reminds Mi-ran that no one’s coming looking for an illegal alien and it’s not as if she actually likes him so he is infinitely expendable. 

In an odd way, getting the money is about not being an expendable person anymore. They want the money because they think it will give them back a degree of control over their lives, a kind freedom to move forward with a sense of possibility they do not currently have because of all their debts both financial and emotional. Yet they find themselves farcically scrabbling in chaos, beasts clawing at straws, as they try to outsmart each other and the universe to get their hands on the bag. The universe looks on and laughs, rejoicing in its darkly humorous punchline as the bag finds itself another owner, tempted by its dubious charms with only the promise of more chaos to ensue.


Beasts Clawing at Straws streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app Aug. 29 to Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Bacchus Lady (죽여주는 여자, E J-Yong, 2016)

bacchus-ladyRather than a Maenad in a divine frenzy driven by drunkenness, lust, and hedonistic fury, a “Bacchus Lady” is a humorous nickname used for the older women who solicit men in Korean parks by euphemistically offering to sell them a bottle of Bacchus energy drink. E J-yong reteams with veteran Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung to tell the tragic story of Youn So-young, hooker with a heart of gold and now a member of the older generation permitted to slip through the cracks in the absence of familial connections.

Youn So-young (Youn Yuh-jung) is going to have to close the shop for a few days, she has gonorrhoea thanks to a no good customer who (presumably) paid her extra for no protection. As if that weren’t bad news enough, So-young becomes a witness to a public domestic dispute as the doctor’s Filipina former lover and mother to his unacknowledged son tracks him down to his clinic. During the heated argument conducted in English the jilted lover stabs her no good former beau with a pair of scissors and is hauled off by security, instructing her young son, Min-ho, waiting downstairs, to make a run for it.

Not knowing quite why, So-young chases after the boy and ends up taking him home. With the help of her transgender landlady (An A-zu) and younger neighbour with a prosthetic leg (Yoon Kye-sang), So-young cares for the boy before trying to figure out what’s going on with his mother. So-young returns to work after her initial problems are cleared up which brings her into contact with three former clients who each have a very unusual favour to ask of her…

First and foremost, The Bacchus Lady (죽여주는 여자, Jug-yeo-ju-neun Yeo-ja) wants to ask a lot of questions about the status of the elderly in contemporary Korea. Korea has one of the highest rates of older people living in poverty among the developed nations with many forced to keep working to support themselves even as their health fails. Though many older people have extended family networks, the nature of modern society leaves them isolated as their children may have moved away or even to foreign countries and are not able, or simply not interested, in providing later life care for their relatives. Some, like So-young, are on their own. With no familial connections to rely on and only her neighbours to count as friends, she has few options and opportunities for women of her age are thin on the ground.

Speaking to a client who turned out to be a documentary filmmaker, So-young reveals that she chose prostitution out of pride – she couldn’t bring herself to take a street cleaning job and thinks this is better. In fact, her story is more complex and exposes a deep seem of historical social problems as So-young first became a prostitute at the American air base.

There are odd parallels to be found everywhere – So-young was seduced an abandoned by an American soldier just as Min-ho’s mother has been abandoned by her Korean doctor who returned home and married well, leaving her far behind. In fact, Min-ho has a picture of his happy family which is almost identical to one So-young has stashed away in a drawer (only she’s torn out the painful half of hers). Now the Koreans are making the same mistakes as the previously mentioned occupying forces, sowing their wild oats abroad and forgetting all about their foreign adventures when they come home to settle down.

Parents reject their children, and children reject their parents. When one of So-young’s former customers suffers a stroke, his son’s family come back from the States to visit him but the daughter-in-law coldly announces that they won’t visit again for another year (knowing full well he may not have that long). The grandchildren barely speak Korean and aren’t interested in hanging round the sickbed of a man they don’t quite know, grandfather or not. The son says nothing. The daughter-in-law even tries to stop So-young visiting her husband’s father assuming she’s some kind of granny gold digger (got to protect that inheritance after all). No wonder the poor man becomes the first of many asking So-young to help him to die. Loss of youth, loss of health, loss of relationships – the loneliness and the boredom alone are too much to bear, let alone pecuniary worries.

So-young is an impulsive sort of woman. When asked why she does some of the things she does, So-young replies that she doesn’t know, she must be mad. Yet there’s a kindness and a naivety belying her otherwise straightforward personality. Even if she can feel something is probably a bad idea but it might help, she feels compelled to do it anyway, eventually with disastrous consequences. So-young is a nice woman who’s been unlucky and society continues to make her pay for that. Always left feeling as if she needs to atone for an unforgivable sin, So-young lives an oddly ascetic life, taking few pleasures and giving away most of her rewards. Her story may be an extreme one, but hers is the fate of many older women who find themselves abandoned without pensions, savings, or family to help them survive.

An interesting look at life on the fringes of an affluent city, The Bacchus Lady is sad tale though one filled with compassion and good humour. E avoids outward melodrama or unwelcome sentimentality, approaching So-young’s ultimate destination with the necessary pathos. The gentle accordion based score lends the film a whimsical air which is only undercut by the abrupt tonal shift and suddenness of the coda finale, but E’s aim is a serious one. So-young is her own woman, but she also stands for a disadvantaged stratum of society who have been consistently denied the ability to fend for themselves and are suddenly expected to do so in their old age when they most need society’s help. Sympathy for Lady Bacchus? Society would do well to take note.


Reviewed at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles):