Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari follows the Yi Family, a Korean quartet immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. They settle in California at first, but Jacob (Steven Yuen) grows impatient with city life. He’s desirous of an expanse of land to call his own, of a family farm, of that elusive thing people sometimes call the American Dream. So he uproots the family and moves to rural Arkansas, where fifty acres of the best dirt in America await. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is far more pragmatic, and she has trouble envisioning the farm of the future behind the dilapidated mobile home of the present. Meanwhile, their children David and Anne (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho) are at first simply along for the ride, fascinated by the fact that they now live in a house that has wheels.
Chung’s semi-autobiographical film — presented last night by Independent Film Festival Boston — may have the trappings of films you’ve seen before, but none of those are likely as heartfelt as Minari. By focusing less on the cultural adjustment of the Yi Family into their Arkansas community and more on the dynamics of the family itself, the story avoids the clichéd Big Ideas that mire so many indie films. Themes of racism and class struggle are certainly in play, but they’re secondary to the family drama. It could almost be called a chamber piece if it didn’t take place on such a wide expanse of land.
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The Paper Tigers screened as a part of the Boston Asian American Film Festival last night, a fest which also boasted a strong documentary slate this year with the likes of 76 Hours, The Donut King and A Thousand Cuts. Between those and the likes of the Centerpiece Narrative Coming Home Again, BAAFF’s varied offerings mostly skewed toward the dramatic and the serious. Not unheard of for any film festival, of course, but more often than not the diamond in the rough is the oddball film that seems most out-of-place with the hyper-critical festival crowd. The Paper Tigers is that film for this fest, and even in a virtual capacity the kung-fu comedy was a standout.
The setup is a familiar one: once-famous kung-fu prodigies Danny, Hing and Jim are now middle-aged has-beens, more likely to injure themselves in combat than anyone else. But when their former master Sifu dies under suspicious circumstances, the washed-up Three Tigers have to reunite for one last fight. Insofar as the setup is Da 3 Bloods or Expendables Minus Guns, Tigers collects the “one last job”, “past their prime” and “getting the band back together” tropes and deploys them within the traditional bounds of the kung-fu comedy, throwing in an equally familiar absentee father subplot for good measure.
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Time is not the type of documentary that could have been directed by anyone. Sure, it could have. Most documentaries are exactly that, and to be fair there’s something to be said for an unobtrusive, understated approach to nonfiction filmmaking. Here, the subject matter is so relevant and the central “character” is so compelling that the documentarian in the director’s chair could simply have flicked the camera on and pointed it at Fox. Time would likely still be an essential watch. But Garrett Bradley, in directing only her second feature, does so much more in bringing Fox and Rob Richardson to the screen.
After a robbery they committed in desperation in the 1990s, wife and husband Fox and Rob are separated when Rob is sentenced to 60 years — without parole — for the crime. They already had one child at the time of Rob’s incarceration, and Fox was pregnant with twins at the time. In the ensuing twenty years, Fox not only raises her boys and makes a career of speaking publicly about her experience, but fights tirelessly to secure Rob’s release. Throughout it all, Fox maintains a video diary for her husband, charting the growth of their children and the struggle for their family’s reunification over two long decades.
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