Category: American Independents

Shiva Baby (US 2020)

Danielle with a bagel and a faraway look – getting through the shiva

Weddings and funeral are universal settings for family events and they have been fertile ground for quarrels and revelations since storytelling developed in human communities. Shiva is the Jewish period of mourning and in this New York Jewish community Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college student, has been asked by her parents to attend a shiva gathering for one of their friends. Danielle doesn’t know (or can’t remember) the person who died and she misses the funeral service because she is enjoying a session with her ‘sugar daddy’. This brief scene opens the film in long shot and we see Dani being paid for sex. The rest of the film is located in the middle-class home of the bereaved’s family.

Dani with her parents . . .

For Dani the shiva is an unsettling experience which is at times nightmarish. Her parents (played by Polly Draper and Fred Malamed) comment on everything about her and discuss her possible career options, her appearance and prospective marriage partners with all the other ageing parents, friends and relatives. But the real nightmare begins when Dani spots her ex girl-friend, the successful student Maya (Molly Gordon) and soon after her ‘sugar daddy’ turns up with his high-flying wife and their baby. It appears that Max (Danny Deferrari) knows Dani’s parents but he was unaware of who Dani was. It’s not difficult to see how much of a nightmare this is for Dani. The film is relatively short at just 77 minutes but writer-director Emma Seligman packs a lot in. At first I wondered if I would be able to follow this narrative at all but it got easier when I turned the English subtitles on – I found the two young women in particular hard to follow. There are also more Yiddish terms used in the film than I’ve come across for a while. I’m clearly not the target audience for the film but I did find I was engaged and I came to understand Dani more as the film went on. I confess I would have left the shiva gathering as soon as possible to get away from all the other people there but Dani is made of stronger stuff.

. . . and taken aback when sugar daddy Max appears . . .

Shiva Baby was released in the UK by MUBI following a successful run in North America in cinemas, at festivals and on streamers. MUBI gave the film a single day cinema release in early June and it is now streaming, presumably for some time. On the stream, the film is followed by an informative and engaging Q&A with Emma Seligman who turns out to be from a Reform Jewish Community in Toronto. She trained at NYU and originally made Shiva Baby as an 8 minute short film in 2018 with Rachel Sennott as Dani. Opening out the film required a hunt for funding from various independent sources. Shiva Baby is very impressive as a first feature. Seligman makes the most of her major location and the budget constraints. There is a strong cast supporting Sennott who is herself a comedian and writer as well as actor. The material comes from Seligman’s own observations and experience of her own Jewish community. She makes clear in the Q&A that the film is for ‘millennials’ who are faced with the lack of understanding shown by ‘boomer’ parents. I think this is a little unfair. As a boomer I’m well aware of the struggles of recent graduates in finding jobs and I’ve had a ‘portfolio’ career myself so I know something about what they might face later on. But these are not the real concerns of the narrative. Parents are much the same across many cultures – these New York Jewish parents just seem more hard-edged and extreme, although much of that is bluster, I think.

The real concern here is what Seligman refers to as ‘validation’ of identity for young women and particularly for queer young women like Dani and Maya. It’s about gaining control over your own sexuality and the power relationships that this involves. The concept of the new ‘sugar-daddy’ involves young women (and men) finding older partners online who are willing to pay for sexual relationships. Many young people need money for higher education fees on top of living accommodation and subsistence. Dani, however, has relatively wealthy parents who at the moment are providing monetary support. In a sense she is still a ‘baby’ for her parents and her use of a sugar daddy has wider and more complex meanings. The film’s title thus works both for Dani’s status and for Max’s baby which proves to be the real inciting incident of the narrative structure. “Who on earth brings a baby to a shiva?”, as someone asks rhetorically.

Helping out with Maya. How is meeting her again going to work out?

Several reviewers have suggested the narrative resembles a horror narrative, others have referred to farce. One suggested it resembled the scene in The Graduate when Benjamin is urged to go into plastics, the industry of the future (in 1968). There is something in all of these suggestions. Leyna Rowan and Hanna Park, as respectively cinematographer and editor, do a good job of taking us through the several rooms of this suburban house, sometimes seeing characters through windows, down corridors and in doorways in the throes of a lively gathering. The film is presented in ‘Scope and at one point we get an expressionist montage of shots of elderly people rather obscenely eating the various forms of ‘finger food’. Dani we will learn has been ‘chubby’ in the past and now is ‘skinny’. Comments about her weight just add further pressure. The music soundtrack by Ariel Marx is more likely to evoke a horror film or at least severe disturbance.

Shiva baby is a highly-rated film. I did wonder if it could live up to the hype. I needn’t have worried. The whole MUBI programme (97 minutes with the Q&A) flashed by and stirred up a lot of thoughts. I’d recommend it for any audience, not just millennials, though they might get most from it.

Kansas City Confidential (US 1952)

I remember reading about Phil Karlson back in the early 1970s when some of his 1950s films were re-released on 16mm and he was written about in Monthly Film Bulletin. Kansas City Confidential was one of the titles that lodged in my brain but I don’t think I saw it in the 1970s. The film was released as The Secret Four in the UK in 1953. That title does refer to the plot but makes it sound like an Enid Blyton children’s story. ‘Kansas City Confidential‘ as a title is explained in the poster above (and in the opening credit sequence) as a police story that the authorities didn’t want to be told. This is a tough crime film related to 1950s film noir. It has a deserved reputation as a film with an intriguing plot that was referenced by more than one later film and perhaps most famously by Quentin Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Three of the gang who are always masked and don’t know who they are working with

Karlson began as an assistant director in the early 1930s and progressed to directing in 1944, proving to be an efficient director of B films. By the early 1950s as the B units of the majors were winding down he was working for independent producers. In this instance it was Edward Small and the film was released through United Artists. Small may have been a low budget producer but this is not a B picture, running at 99 minutes and looking very good in HD on MUBI in the UK. The film has an interesting script by George Bruce and Harry Essex based on a story by Harold Greene and Rowland Browne. It has a strong cast and excellent photography by George Diskant, best known perhaps for his work at RKO, especially on Nick Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951). His work on Kansas City Confidential features close-ups of the leading characters and emphasises the tension in an unusual story.

Joe (John Payne) finds Phil (Jack Elam) at a crap shoot

There are three of cinema’s natural ‘heavies’ here, played by Jack Elam, Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef. They are recruited for an armoured car robbery by a ‘Mr Big’ who recruits them individually and forces them to wear a felt mask so that they will not know each other after the robbery. The haul is over $1 million and the three are sent to different locations to await instructions about meeting up and dividing the spoils. The planning for the robbery implicates an innocent man, ‘Joe Rolfe’ played by John Payne, the tob-billed actor in the cast. Is this deliberate or accidental? Either way he isn’t going to be happy and we know he will find a way to track down the others.

Joe is found by Boyd (Neville Brand) and Tony (Lee Van Cleef)

Joe and Helen (Coleen Gray)

Most of the narrative focuses on the aftermath of the robbery and takes place in Mexico where the four robbers and are intended to meet at a fishing resort and Mr Big will divide the spoils. A fifth character is introduced in the form of a youngish woman played by Coleen Gray who inevitably becomes interested in Joe. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative. Needless to say it all ends badly after a ‘reveal’.

Preston Foster, Helen’s father meets Tony at the resort bar. The receptionist (Dona Drake) looks on.

My initial reaction to this film was simply how good it looked. This is a film which somehow did not have its intellectual property rights renewed and fell into the Public Domain in the US, meaning that anyone could circulate poorly copied prints. This HD print is a revelation. I was reminded of a host of American crime films from the 1940s to 1960s. The Mexican setting (actually filmed in California) made me think of Out of the Past (1947) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), both seen as films noirs. It doesn’t have the romanticism of Out of the Past but instead it has the hardness and brutality of the 1950s films like The Big Combo (1955). In fact, the brutality is picked out by several commentators. Joe in particular is subjected to several beatings and he also delivers his own. Jack Elam, in particular suffers badly. These beatings are ones in which the victims seem to recover remarkably quickly – that’s possibly a reason why, for a modern audience they seem more shocking, as if the kicks and punches are of no consequence. Joe is an interesting character, well played by the experienced Payne, who has a back-story that is hinted at but not filled in with any detail. This seems like another difference compared to the late 1940s noirs in which the war is only a few years past and there might be some kind of explanation for why some men behave as they do. I did also think about Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1956), a film which shares some narrative elements with Kansas City Confidential and was also overlooked at the time perhaps but has since been appreciated. Tourneur and Karlson had similar early careers  and made a broad range of films, Tourneur was given his chance by Val Lewton in the RKO B-unit and from then on got more interesting jobs (including Out of the Past) but in the 1950s found himself again being badly treated by the studios. I don’t know enough about Karlson to make a proper comparison but he seems to have remained within the world of low budget genre pictures.

Kansas City Confidential isn’t perfect. The low budget shows in places. I noticed several continuity errors that perhaps should have been re-shot – a gun is placed in a holster under a jacket on the right but in a fight is drawn from under the jacket on the left and so on. The plot is cleverly thought through but still has a few holes, I think. Nevertheless, I think this film deserves its high rating on IMDb and I’ll certainly take any other opportunities to see films by Phil Karlson.

Dont Look Back (US 1967)

Bob Dylan travelling on British Rail when you could smoke in a closed compartment.

Dont Look Back was broadcast on BBC4 as part of a programming segment celebrating Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday. I watched it again after many years and remembered some scenes very clearly but was surprised by others. Very much a film ‘of the moment’, it documents aspects of Bob Dylan’s tour of England in late April – early May 1965 which comprised eight concerts in large venues in seven English cities. Surprisingly perhaps, it didn’t reach Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

The film is a form of documentary, though not a ‘music concert documentary’ as such. More of the time is spent backstage, in hotel rooms or on the road. There is music, but often only snatches of songs on stage. The ‘best’ song performance may well be a version of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ sung by Dylan in a hotel room. There is also a prelude featuring the famous early ‘music video’ with Dylan presenting the scrawled lyrics of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ on flash cards. This song shot into the UK singles charts during the tour.

Dylan has a more formal interview with a Jamaican journalist working for BBC World Service’s African division.

Film scholars have categorised the film as an example of ‘Direct Cinema’, the documentary form that emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s in Canada and the US, seeking to present an observational documentary with as little artifice as possible. Ironically, although it was one of the first such ‘backstage’ music docs, Dont Look Back‘s cinema release was delayed until 1967 in the US (distributors didn’t believe it would attract an audience) and it did not reach the UK until 1970 when the BBFC for some reason gave it an ‘X’ certificate. This meant that the film’s topicality was lost and in 1970 it was in competition with Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones documentary by the Maysles Brothers, also like D. A. Pennebaker, the director of Dont Look Back, seen as Direct Cinema pioneers. Nevertheless the large Dylan fanbase and its desire for archival footage of Dylan has meant that Dont Look Back has been well supported over the last fifty years. (It appears that the original title didn’t have the apostrophe in ‘Don’t’.)

‘Direct Cinema’ appeared at roughly the same time as cinéma vérité in France. Both were made possible by developments in film technologies, especially the lightweight 16mm cameras which could be handheld, faster film stock and synchronous sound recording via a linked audio recorder. French pioneer Jean Rouch went out on the streets of Paris for his film Chronique d’un été in 1961 with the sociologist Edgar Morin. North American filmmakers such Robert Drew and his associates and documentary filmmakers at the National Film Board of Canada had already started using the new technologies for a range of documentaries. Drew made the biggest impact with Primary in 1960, following John F. Kennedy on his early Democratic primary campaign in Wisconsin. This was made for TV in the US but seen on film in festivals around the world. Many people use the terms ‘direct cinema’ and ciné vérité interchangeably. One difference is that Rouch as a filmmaker had a direct dialogue with the people he filmed, interacting with them on screen. Direct Cinema projects were strictly observational.

Marianne Faithfull in the corner of the room as Joan Baez sings and Bob Dylan writes.

The great strength of Direct Cinema is the chance to document interactions between their subjects and the various people they meet in their jobs. The filmmaker can to some extent prepare for these. For instance, at the beginning of the film Dylan meets reporters at Heathrow airport and the ensuing dialogue between rather po-faced reporters and a waspish Dylan could be predicted, whereas later scenes of young girls outside the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool seem spontaneous. I think, watching the film now, the main pleasure for me is in the way it documents aspects of British culture which are precisely about 1965. The one failing on this score is that perhaps to preserve the ‘no artifice’ rule, there are no inter-titles explaining where we are (which is usually pretty obvious) and, more importantly, who is shown on screen. Dylan is accompanied throughout by his manager Albert Grossman and fellow American folk-singer Bob Neuwirth (there primarily for ‘moral support’ I guess). For the first few days Joan Baez is present. It was the end period of their relationship and although we hear her singing in the hotel rooms, she doesn’t sing with Dylan on stage. At other points in the film there are glimpses of Marianne Faithful and John Mayall among the many musicians and performers hanging round the hotel rooms.

The two performers who are picked out in the film are Alan Price and Donovan. Price had just left the Animals and had not yet formed the Alan Price Set. He seems a little manic at times and his references will have baffled American audiences. He mimes and sings in the style of Dave Berry whose cover version of ‘Little Things’ was a UK hit in April 1965. Berry appeared on TV always hiding behind a prop or obscuring his face with his hands or with his jacket collar. Price also runs through a George Formby song. Formby was the biggest UK film star and music act (with his ukulele and comic songs) during the 1930s and 1940s. Donovan is featured rather differently. At this point he was a month away from his 19th birthday and had released just one hit single ‘Catch the Wind’. His first album would be released in the next few weeks. In a hotel room he sings for Dylan and the others gathered around. Dylan seems impressed and plays It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ in response. In the next scene there is a discussion about how Donovan’s tour (with the same promoter as Dylan’s) is going (not well). The UK press was trying to create a narrative around Donovan’s ‘challenge’ to Dylan.

Donovan behind Dylan

In fact, the UK press was very interested in the Dylan tour. 1965 was a key moment in the development of pop/rock culture and its place in the public imagination. Dylan was briefly a ‘pop star’ and his responses to interviewers’ questions were more intelligent than most of his peers. This was also a period when ‘youth culture’ became more important. All of the performers discussed here – Dylan, Joan Baez, Alan Price, Donovan etc. were under 25 whereas most of the reporters for both the national and regional press were much older. Pennebaker’s film, whether by accident or design, picks out elements of the new music culture. It includes a sequence in which the UK promoter Tito Burns, a major player as a manager and impresario since the 1950s, discusses with Albert Grossman how to increase appearance fees for Dylan. They phone the BBC and Granada trying to drive the fees up. In another scene Pennebaker captures the chaos at Newcastle City Hall when Dylan’s mike cuts out – the problem was discussed at length in the local paper. It’s noticeable that at this point, the major venues like the civic halls were still not properly equipped for rock ‘n roll. In 1965 Dylan was on the cusp of ‘going electric’ and the tour played the Free Trade Hall in Manchester where a year later Dylan would be met with cries of ‘Judas!’ when he introduced the Hawks as his backing band.

I’m sure there is a lot to say about Dylan’s state of mind during this tour and I leave that to the Dylanologists to sort out. Simply as a direct cinema documentary, Dont Look Back is a gem, capturing a moment in UK youth culture.

First Cow (US 2019)

The woods of Oregon . . .

This film narrative begins with a long shot of a container ship moving at a good speed through a wide river passage. In a wooded area close to the river a woman discovers something which after investigation and careful scraping away of soil reveals two skeletons side by side. A cut takes us to a close-up of a man picking chanterelles, wild mushrooms, in the woods. The man’s rather tattered clothes and the introduction of non-diegetic music  – a harpsichord or a dulcimer? – suggests an earlier time. The man is ‘Cookie’ (John Magaro), hired by a bunch of unkempt trappers to keep them fed, partly through his foraging. A little later he finds a naked Chinese man in the woods. Unlike the squabbling trappers Cookie seems a kindly soul who gives the Chinese man a blanket, and food and drink and hides him from the trappers.

The opening sequence sees Alia Shawkat unearthing the skeletons

With this opening, writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond, whose novel they adapt, raise any number of intriguing questions about American history, myth-making, the concept of the Western narrative and also the writing of those narratives about ‘discovery’ and the early attempts by Europeans to live alongside indigenous peoples and other migrants in the North West of what would later become the United States. They don’t directly tell us when or where this long flashback is set but if we know their previous collaborations such as the feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010), we might reasonably assume that this is ‘Oregon Country’ a large area being exploited mostly for beaver pelts by both British and American interests. Raymond’s novel Half Life (2004) confirms that this is the setting. The time is the 1820s but I’m not sure how learned that.

King-Lu and Cookie, the central characters

After aiding the the Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie doesn’t see him again for some time but then he meets him again in the ramshackle settlement known as ‘Fort Tilikum’. King-Lu has somehow acquired a shack and he invites Cookie to visit. Soon the two men settle in together, learning a little about each other’s background. ‘Cookie’ is a skilled baker who dreams of owning a hotel and bakery in San Francisco. King-Lu is from North China and has travelled the world. Both have heard that this is the land of abundance and they discuss ways in which to make their fortunes. King-Lu is the more bullish but Cookie has the skills to make baked goods that would sell very well in the settlement – like ‘hot cakes’ in fact. The key to possible success is the ‘first cow’, a beautiful dairy cow that has been brought to the nearby grand residence of the ‘Chief Factor’. Played by Toby Jones this character and his main employee Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) represent the English/Scottish influence in the area. ‘Factor’ is the Scots word for someone who acts as the agent of a large landowner. It was also a word used to describe the entrepreneurs who were wheeler-dealers in the lands controlled by the Hudson’s Bay company, the main power in Oregon at this time. (Much of this background is also explored in The Sisters Brothers (France-Belgium 2018), though some twenty-five years later when the ‘Oregon Territory’ is being developed.)

The cow arrives by boat

The Chief Factor has bought the cow, the first to be seen in the area, to improve his hospitality but unfortunately the bull and calf that accompanied it died during shipment. Cookie declares that if he had access to milk he could bake anything, not just ‘flour and water bread’. Here could be the two men’s golden chance. But how will he and King-Lu get the milk? That’s basically the rest of the plot and you can probably work out what happens.

First Cow is a long film (122 mins), especially given the rather thin plot. It’s shot in the squarish Academy format that had mainly disappeared from American film production by the mid-1950s, certainly from ‘studio productions’ (but which Reichardt used in Meek’s Cutoff). Much of the film takes place in the murky world of interiors with candlelight or in the woods at night. For audiences more used to high key action pictures it must be a trial to watch. Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner are likely to be the only actors UK audiences will recognise, although the woman seen in the short opening sequence is Alia Shawkat, who has featured in many US TV series and independent films. The same is true of John Magaro and Orion Lee. Other actors, like the creative team may have been part of other Kelly Reichardt productions. There are three kinds of responses to the film: bewilderment and professed boredom from mainstream cinemagoers, a feeling that this isn’t the best of Reichardt’s work by some critics and acclaim by those who feel she has once again offered a unique and cogent statement about American culture. I’m with the last group and I would bracket her with Debra Granik as my two favourite US auteurs. I expect Chloe Zhao will join them when I’ve seen more of her films.

Toby Jones as the Chief Factor

Much of the discussion about the film is around concepts of naïvete, mythmaking and critiques of capitalism. It’s an interesting time to discuss these concepts alongside the fate of indigenous peoples and the assimilation of migrants in the expanding United States. The two central characters are both likeable men. They don’t mean harm to anyone, they just want to make something of themselves. They don’t realise that this ‘Eden’ or ‘land of opportunity’ is (a) the homeland of local North American peoples and (b) that Eden has already been corrupted by the early capitalist exploitation of the Hudson Bay Company, the rapacious agent of British colonialism. There is no going back, the indigenous people are being killed by European diseases, the local beaver population is being decimated by trapping and there is no law as yet. I was reminded of various Westerns, set later. Those in the North West like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) which shares an actor with First Cow, René Auberjonois, and Michael Winterbottom’s Hardy adaptation, The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Both these films share a sense of European miners and other migrants, but they also feature European women. First Cow has no lead female roles but there are many scenes when indigenous women are silently in the background. The one sequence in which there is dialogue is that between the Chief Factor’s wife and the wife of an indigenous man. The Chief Factor’s wife is played by Lily Gladstone, the actor with Native American heritage who also appears in a key role in Reichardt’s previous film, Certain Women (2016). I’m not sure yet what this presentation of indigenous women really means in this film, except that it was the European men who messed things up first. But were the European  women who followed complicit? And we mustn’t forget the presence of the East Asian men.

I’ve seen some reviews which don’t accept that First Cow is a Western at all. I would disagree. I know Western scholars tend to see the key period setting for the genre as 1865-1895, but the underlying themes of the Western run across the whole development of the United States and across those of the other nation states with similar human and physical geography. First Cow is a wonderful addition to the history of the Western and it prompts me to think about a whole series of other Westerns which I’ll get to at some point. The film has been acquired for UK distribution by MUBI which should see some cinema screenings and then availability on MUBI’s screening service. Not to be missed!

Minari (US 2020)

Father and son building a new life in Arkansas . . .

Minari ‘opens’ this week in the UK with British Film Institute support and it arrives trailing clouds of praise as this year’s ‘indie’ hit film. It has received six Oscar nominations among many others and it has been presented as a ‘feelgood film’ about assimilation. Several reviews make references to the attacks on Asian-Americans during the pandemic, exacerbated by Trump, and how this film might be seen as a positive representation. The film is produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B company and it’s the fourth feature by Lee Isaac Chung. The film is a 1980s-set family melodrama inspired by the director’s own childhood growing up on an Arkansas farm as the son of Korean migrants. Everybody appears to love the film but on a first viewing I found I was left with several questions. Fortunately I watched it as part of the Borderlines Film Festival which allows 24 hours to watch the film online and I’ve been able to review parts of the film.

Monica and jacob have different ideas about what the future might hold

The narrative begins with the arrival of a family in rural Arkansas after leaving their home in California (a kind of reverse migration to those of the 1930s immortalised in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). Jacob Yi (Stephen Yuen) has bought a piece of land but his wife Monica (the Korean actor Han Ye-ri) is dismayed to discover that the accommodation on it is a large ‘trailer home’. They have two children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and her younger brother David (Alan Kim). Anne is under-used as a character and the focus is clearly on David who has a congenital heart condition. One of Monica’s concerns is how far they are from a hospital. The opening scenes establish that Jacob holds dear to one kind of American Dream, imagining himself as a kind of pioneer homesteader and Monica has a more modern sense of an urban life with all its advantages. The reality is that any income will have to come from chicken sexing for a local poultry business before the new farm venture produces any returns. Jacob’s idea is to grow ‘Korean vegetables’, since as he points out, 30,000 new migrants arrive from Korea each year.

David emerges as the focus of the emotion in the narrative, even if his father’s actions drive the story

What is important in the family drama is that this is the US in the 1980s. I’m not good on dating film settings since I don’t recognise changes in motor vehicle designs, so I didn’t know the time period until I learned that Monica’s father had died during the Korean War. I couldn’t discern everything the local bank manager says to Jacob, but he does actually make the statement “Reagan is good for farmers like you”. This is nonsense since Reagonomics was actually very bad for small farmers (the Farm Aid campaign began in 1985 because of the crisis for family farms). The film’s dialogue is in Korean with subtitles for the family conversations. Director Chung doesn’t give us much back story but it would seem that David was certainly born in the US, and we know Monica was born in Korea. A photograph at the end of the film shows a Korean wedding photo, but I don’t know if Anne was born in South Korea. It’s my problem, I suppose but I wanted to know more and this worried me throughout the narrative. The political situation in South Korea up to 1987-8 was very bad but this doesn’t figure in any conversations. Monica’s mother magically appears in Arkansas bringing gifts from ‘home’. Bringing Grandma (the veteran Korean actor Youn Yuh-Jung) into the household is presented as Jacob’s attempt to assuage Monica’s anger at the situation she finds herself in but the biggest impact is actually on David who develops a relationship with his Korean grandmother, at first confrontational but later close and loving. It’s this relationship which arguably earns the film the feelgood label.

The family is introduced to the local church congregation

Minari is presented in a CinemaScope format for the photography of Lachlan Milne (who shot Hunt for the Wilderpeople, (New Zealand 2016)) with a score by Emile Mosseri which I didn’t really notice first time round (I find some soundtracks don’t work well online unless you have a home cinema system). It’s certainly a well-made film with strong performances and direction. But what is it really saying? One aspect of the film that will perhaps confuse some UK audiences is the role of religion. The family decide to become members of a local church (which provides a bus for the children). This is the so-called ‘Bible belt’ of the US and the locals seem remarkably friendly. Jacob doesn’t appear to be a believer as such but finds himself employing a local farmhand played by Will Patton, who turns out to be a Korean War veteran and someone so devout he carries his own full size crucifix along the local roads on a Sunday (cf Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock UK 2020). In an interview, director Chung explains that the Korean migrants to the US in the 1980s were often funded by US Protestant church organisations. He himself was, as a child, part of the local church community but has now begun to feel that: “the church has quite frankly been a harmful thing. There have been times in my own life where I’ve let faith bring out bigotry in me, and I realised that I had to grow and learn and question things”. This interview by Violet Lucca in Sight and Sound, March 2021 is very interesting. (I’m not sure how to deal with the Korean names associated with this film, I usually put the family name first, but this is often reversed in the US. I’m not sure if the family name of the director is ‘Chung’ or ‘Lee’, both common Korean family names.)

The title ‘Minari’ refers to a South-East Asian vegetable, similar in some ways to watercress in the UK – it thrives by running water. Grandma smuggles in seeds to the US and plants them on the farm by a stream and they thrive. The film ends with these minari plants which creates a set of meanings I won’t spoil. As I’ve tried to indicate, this is a well-made film which raises for me many interesting issues but possibly didn’t work as the family melodrama I hoped it would be. I’m still glad I saw it and it may become an interesting film to work with in future. Whether it will become a big hit in the UK, I don’t know (and anyway with online releases, how do we tell?). I think my problem is more to do with how the film has been discussed in the US and how it is being treated as an ‘awards film’. I’ve cropped the top and bottom of the poster image above, but the central group composition is left untouched. This presents what I would consider a very good image to use for a semiotic analysis. The family composition seems to be seeking a reference to the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu, specifically Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013). Ozu is another director referenced by reviewers, especially a film like Ohayu (Japan 1959). I’m surprised that Edward Yang hasn’t also been mentioned because of Yi-Yi (Taiwan 2000). These are all family melodramas with young boys as central characters. Note also the hazy sun connoting that ‘feelgood’ sense. (Or is it meant to be ‘magic hour light’ as used in Days of Heaven (1978) by Terrence Malick, one of the directors Chung namechecks?) The position of the figures in the composition refers to aspects of the conflicts in the film. Husband and wife are separated by the children. He looks down but she looks at him. What is she thinking? The daughter too looks down and the focus is clearly on the smiling David who in effect ‘owns’ the image. I’m not sure if the huge American flag on the building appears in the film. Perhaps I noticed it in the poster because the current right-wing UK government is plastering itself with Union Jacks? It seems here to raise questions of identity and the American dream which always invoke mixed emotions for me.

Grandma Soonja down by the creek with the minari

I think one of the issues with my readings of this film is that I simply don’t know enough about the Korean migration to the US. I think it is inevitable that in attempting to make sense of migrations we make comparisons between host countries and migration flows. The UK and the US are both similar and different in many ways but our experience of migrations is certainly different. The concept of ‘assimilation’ and the embrace of new values v. the desire to maintain contact with your roots has been a major difference between the US and UK, though that might be changing. At the moment I’m deeply saddened by the nationalistic and jingoist nonsense of the current UK government, following on from the ‘America first’ of Trump. I note that Lee Isaac Chung has said that he was careful not to judge the people he knew in Arkansas, many of whom have become Trump supporters. I’ll be interested to see how the reception of this film plays out in the UK.

Da 5 Bloods (US 2020)

dafivebloods

Taking the knee

Spike Lee  is one of the most interesting film directors working today not only because he brings an African-American perspective to the world but also he doesn’t let convention stifle his message; he’s always been a Brechtian filmmaker. BlacKkKlansman even saw Lee getting Oscar recognition (not that I believe it is an arbiter of what’s good just a signifier of what’s acceptable in the mainstream) and there’s a great line in Da 5 Bloods about the Klansman in the Oval Office. Lee doesn’t pull punches and even if he sometimes goes ‘over the top’ it’s always in a good cause. But what to say about this film which feature four vets returning to Vietnam apparently to bury a lost comrade?

By the end I hated it; it was like watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained where the brilliant representation of racism is curdled by the stupidity of the final scenes. It’s not just Da 5 Bloods ends badly but it’s totally misconceived; Kermode hits the mark:

What is less certain is the rather more awkward Three Kings-style adventure into which Da 5 Bloods mutates, as our antiheroes get chased, shot at and blown up in the jungles of modern-day Vietnam, selling their souls for gold like the fortune hunters in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

That said, he quite liked the film but the mis-steps, for me, overwhelmed all that’s good. It’s not as if mixing Sierra Madre into the politics of the Vietnam War couldn’t have worked but it is ineptly done. It’s a failure at the level of the script which was written by Lee and Kevin Willmott based on an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo; I surmise that whatever the merits of the original it doesn’t work with what Lee and Willmott introduced. Too much of what we see is risible: the land mines; Paul’s (Delroy Lindo) madness; Otis’ (Clark Peters) discovery. It’s not as if any of the narrative threads are impossible just they are not integrated comfortably into the whole.

There is much to like in the 155 minute running time: Newton Thomas Sigel’s brilliant cinematography that captures the beauty of Vietnam and, in the flashback scenes, uses 16mm to give the feel of documentary footage from the time. Lee throws in numerous references to Apocalypse Now!, the helicopters in the sun and The Ride of the Valkyries in particular, and uses footage from Civil Rights police violence and numerous black voices including Mohammed Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. All these work brilliantly but I was so alienated by the film from the time they find the gold that I had to force myself to keep watching. It’s available on Netflix.