Minari

David with his dad Jacob out in the fields

 

Minari is an old-school film of the sort you used to see at Sundance a lot, gentle character driven dramas full of people who were essentially decent. The sort of film Robert Redford used to direct, like Ordinary People or The Milagro Bean Field War or A River Runs Through It (which starred Brad Pitt, an exec producer here). It did well there, winning both the Grand Jury and Audience awards.

In the dying days of the Donald Trump administration it asks and answers the question: who built America? The answer is immigrants, though that message is never uttered out loud. Instead we follow a Korean family who’ve moved out from the city to make a go of life on a farm growing the specialist vegetables they hope other Korean immigrants will want to buy.

It’s his dream, not hers. Though it’s not much more than a big market garden really, this Arkansas plot means everything to Jacob (Steven Yeun). His wife Monica (Yeri Han) would rather be back in the city rather than living in a trailer with her husband and two children. To make ends meet Jacob and Monica also work in a chicken-sexing facility. The female chicks go on to become egg layers, the males are “discarded”. Cut grimly to a chimney stack belching smoke.

It’s details like this that make Minari a real film rather than a pro-this-or-that screed. When Jacob takes on a neighbour to help on the farm, Paul turns out to be an extremely zealous Christian, the sort given to praying in tongues and occasionally carrying his own crucifix down the road. The other locals think he’s nuts. Jacob quietly does too, but Paul is a good worker and a decent guy and knows about vegetables and Will Patton plays him as an individual rather than a type, in a performance reminding us how good he is when he’s not playing cutout characters.

In fact it’s the Americans in this film who are the “other” rather than the Korean immigrants, a symptom of how successfully writer/director Lee Isaac Chung has embedded us with this struggling family.

Minari is the Korean name for water celery, which Monica’s mother Soonja aka Grandma brings with her when she arrives to take up residence. Whereas Jacob is all about the US – he sits at the table to eat his dinner, Grandma is old-country, preferring to squat. Monica fits neatly between the two of them. Wary of going forwards, probably incapable of going back.

 

The family group shot
Together: Jacob and family

 

As Grandma, Youn Yuh-jung is the standout in this film. It’s a gift of a role, standing in a long line of comedy grandmas, but Youn makes it more than you’d see on the page – this Grandma has history. If you’ve seen the South Korean drama The Housemaid, you’ll have seen Youn doing this before.

Special mention also to the exceptional Alan S Kim, as David the six-year-old whose battles for territorial control include him switching grandma’s Korean broth for a bowl of his own warm piss – what a great little sparring duo they make. Poor Noel Cho, as daughter Anne, trails along in their wake, sweet and accomplished though she obviously is.

Here’s a film that includes the theft of water by night, a kid with a heart condition, an exorcism and someone having a stroke, all of them invitations to melodrama and all of them roundly ignored. The film moves on at its own gentle pace, sure of where it’s going.

There are no big speeches, no message moments and – apart from one scene that comes across as engineered compared to the organic flow of the rest of it – no moments of high drama. Staying on the farm through the bad times is held up as being just as honourable as packing it all in and going back to the city, where steady nose-to-grindstone jobs will at least give the kids a known future.

Instead of triumph against adversity, we see the trials and tribulations of daily life. Arguments, disasters, and even the occasional small win. Everyday heroism on a believable human scale. The old-school Sundance movie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Ammonite

Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet

 

After a few years of doing mostly voice work, Kate Winslet has been coaxed back into a leading role in Ammonite, the follow-up to Francis Lee’s powerful breakthrough debut as a director, God’s Own Country.

The 2017 movie told the story of forbidden love between two men on the wild and windy moors of Yorkshire. It’s tempting to see Ammonite as a remake – forbidden love on the wild and windy shores of Dorset – but is there more going on here than that?

Winslet plays real-life 18th-century fossil-hunter Mary Anning – a huge Wikipedia page on her awaits if you know nothing about her. To boil it down: she lived in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England and dug fossils, many of them ammonites, from out of the cliffs of what is now known as the Jurassic Coast, thus helping to change the perception of prehistoric life at a time when science in England was almost entirely controlled by the Church of England and its male professors.

Back to the film. As well as being a skilfull investigator, Mary is a curt no-nonsense woman, the sort who takes a piss on the beach, rubs her hands together to dry them off and then reaches into her bag to pull out a Cornish pasty.

Into her life comes Charlotte Murchison (Saiorse Ronan), a fragile petal with a largely unfeeling and controlling husband (James McArdle). Abandoned after another of her nervous episodes – though Mr Murchison has clearly also had enough of his wife’s demands for affection – Charlotte is left with the icily indifferent Mary. A classic romantic thaw follows as Charlotte rolls from one crisis to another and Mary nurses her back to health, introducing her to the joys of fossil-hunting on the way. If that sounds like an innuendo to you, read on.

Eventually, Charlotte launches lustily into a physical relationship with Mary. She did also seem keen to have sex with her husband and so the story could be interpreted as being one of Mary “turning” Charlotte, especially as Mary has form, a previous downlow fling with local big noise, the appropriately named Mrs Philpot (Fiona Shaw). Writer/director Lee isn’t going in that direction though. This is a story of human affection pure and simple. It’s not a campaigning film either. There is no injustice meted out to the lovers, no exposure to ridicule or disgrace, or anything of the sort. Like God’s Own Country, Ammonite is “post gay”.

 

Kate Winslet
Dour Mary is about to have her world rocked

 

There are two returning actors from that film. Gemma Jones again plays the silent, stern and possibly knowing mother. Good at the Dickensian face is Jones. And there’s also a role for Alec Secareanu. In God’s Own Country he was the studly foreigner rolling lustily in the mud with Yorkshire farmer Josh O’Connor; here he’s the studly doctor with an eye for Mary. Rolling in the mud is this time around is very unlikely.

Lee is more interested in the injustice done to women in a man’s world than to people in same-sex relationships. His opening shot is of a cleaning woman being shooed out of the way by a passing man in a museum specialising in fossils, and even in his close concern with the way women were expected to dress he shows how their lives were being constrained by restricted choices. Pulling on a pair of boots, as Mary does to go fossil-hunting, is a political statement.

Lyme Regis was the setting for The French Lieutenant’s Woman – one half of which was a love story between a fossil-hunter (Jeremy Irons in the 1981 film) and a troubled woman (Meryl Streep). It’s also the setting for a good chunk of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a story about a woman past her peak getting a second chance at love. Though it makes no difference to the enjoyment or appreciation of Ammonite to know those things, they hover in the background.

It’s been a while since Winslet had a role this meaty. And how good she is at suggesting that emotions are roiling beneath Mary’s bluff, wind-coarsened exterior. Ronan, by contrast, has the less rewarding role as the largely passive Charlotte.

Stéphane Fontaine is the DP and in one brilliant and technically complex sequence set on the crowded waterfront in London’s docks, he gets a chance to show what he can do – he was the DP on Elle and Jackie so is quite a signing. It’s quite a different sequence from the rest of the film, but suggests the direction Lee might be thinking of heading in the future, the big film – that could only be a good thing.

But for the most part Fontaine is limited to lighting interiors and depicting the gloomy salt-scoured beaches of England’s south coast in winter. More of the beaches, actually, would have been a bonus, because there’s a tendency towards tastefulness (I blame Jane Austen and costume drama more generally) that slightly bedevils this film.

In the realm of music it’s called Difficult Third Album Syndrome. The first (God’s Own Country) is a hit so this, the second, is pretty much a repeat of that. After that comes the big test, because no one’s going to buy the same material yet again. Francis Lee has wrung the changes just enough to make Ammonite a satisfying film in its own right, but if you’ve seen God’s Own Country you might find some of the grooves familiar. His third time out is going to be interesting.

 

 

 

Ammonite – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Byzantium

Gemma Arterton in Byzantium

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

26 November

 

 

Vlad the Impaler becomes ruler of Wallachia for third time, 1476

On this day in 1476, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia became ruler of Wallachia for the third time.

His father, Vlad II, had become a member of the chivalric Order of the Dragon (Drache in German, Dracul in Romanian) in 1431. As the son, Vlad III carried the patronymic Dracula, son of Dracul (he signed himself Wladislaus Dragwlya).

Vlad III spent a good deal of his life asserting his claim on Wallachia. He was first installed as a ruler by the Ottomans – Vlad III had been brought up in the Sultan’s court as a hostage, to ensure his father’s loyalty to the Ottoman empire – and they put him on the throne to prevent encroachment by the Hungarians.

This failed. Vlad III secured his second reign by allying himself with the Hungarians against the Ottomans. He established strict rule over his new country, impaled any who stood in his way and built up a fiercely loyal special guard to protect him against assassination. This second period of rule was marked out by relentless conflict with the Ottomans who maintained that Wallachia was part of their Empire. To which Vlad responded by impaling any Ottoman soldier he found on his territory – the higher the rank, the longer the stake.

This made Vlad III a popular figure in Western Europe, where there were always worries about Ottoman plans for aggrandisement. However, Vlad III was finally routed by his own brother, Radu the Handsome, on behalf of the Ottomans, in alliance with Vlad’s own nobility.

Vlad III seems to have spent the years following his defeat as a prisoner in Hungary. In 1475 Radu died and Vlad immediately declared himself voivode (military ruler) of Wallachia. After only two months of uneasy rule Vlad III was assassinated. No one is sure exactly when, or where, or by whom.

Exactly how cruel Vlad III was, and how many of the tales of his evil deeds were political spin put about by enemies (and he had plenty) is hard to tell, though there are stories of babies being roasted and fed to their own mothers, and of 20,000 corpses impaled on the outskirts of Targoviste, Vlad’s capital, a sight which is said to have sickened the Sultan, himself a notable impaler.

 

 

 

Byzantium (2013, dir: Neil Jordan)

Since Bram Stoker borrowed the Dracula name for his 1897 novel, the character of the vampire has almost inevitably been gothic in character – favouring the night, pale, sickly of aspect, dressed in sombre colours, sexy, voracious.

Bucking that trend was the very modern, urban IKEA version found in Let the Right One In, the most influential vampire film of recent years/decades. Neil Jordan’s film is a beautiful collision of the two – on the one hand we have buxom gothic vamp Clara, played by Gemma Arterton. On the other there’s wispy Eleanor, played by Saoirse Ronan, who only drinks blood when she absolutely has to.

Are they sisters? Mother and daughter? Or eternal friends? The answer to that question is more or less the plot of the film. And while we’re following it we’re being given an object lesson in atmospherics by Neil Jordan, whose last dabble in this area was 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.

This is the better film, more sure of itself, less caught up in the machinations of stars and their agents. Thematically, though it’s closer to Jordan’s 1984 fairytale excursion The Company of Wolves – with the exploitation of women and class as a factor in daily (and eternal) life both ringing bells. As you might expect with a screenplay for The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter and for Byzantium by Moira Buffini, both feminists (though Buffini’s feminism is more oblique than Carter’s).

Taking notes from reactions to The Company of Wolves, perhaps, Jordan keeps his themes in the background, leaving front of curtain to the actors and production designers. And he is rewarded royally – it’s difficult to imagine better casting than Arterton and Ronan. Then there’s Caleb Landry Jones as a young man with haemophilia, Jonny Lee Miller as an utter bounder, Tom Hollander as a dithery teacher who believes Arterton might be interested in him (she is, Tom, just not in the way that you think).

As for Byzantium itself, a rundown seaside hotel somewhere on the South Coast of England, it’s a glorious rotten bundle of a place complete with an old cathode ray TV on which the girls watch old films – a Hammer horror vampire flick at one point. Very homely.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Fabulous production design by Simon Elliott
  • Really top class casting
  • Shame and Place Beyond the Pines cinematographer Sean Bobbit
  • Women as the vampires, not the victims

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Byzantium – watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate