Amidst the Oscar-related acclaim for Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical feature there was an online interview with Best Supporting Actress nominee Youn Yuh-jung, who expressed bewilderment at the strong emotional reaction that many Korean-Americans had toward the film. Having herself emigrated to the U.S. when she was young, she understood the hardships that the fictional family in the film endured, but as someone who was born in Korea she said immigrants her age didn’t expect to have access to the American Dream. Korean-Americans, meaning people of Korean ethnicity who were born in the U.S., were steeped in that mindset.
Youn’s insightful take on the film’s effect reflect something of Chung’s own reticence to over-dramatize what happens to the Yee family, who move from Los Angeles to the rustic town of Lincoln, Arkansas, to start a farm where they will grow vegetables for local Koreans. The film is set in the 1980s. Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) are South Korean immigrants, while their two children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim), were born in the U.S. Monica, we soon discern, is not that crazy about the move, since she and Jacob had relatively good factory jobs in SoCal. Jacob takes the American Dream at face value, which is why he believes he can make something of himself on his own, but Chung, obviously remembering his own father, who did pretty much the same thing when Chung was David’s age, presents Jacob as headstrong in the worst way: Dismissive of his wife’s concerns and over-confident of his own abilities to tame the land. Two scenes clearly show that his dream was not properly thought out. When the family arrives at the farm they have taken over with their life savings—and which came cheap because the previous tenant committed suicide—Monica is shocked that the house is a mobile home on blocks with dodgy water pressure and crappy wallpaper. Later, when Jacob is looking to dig a well in order to avoid the high cost of buying public water for irrigation, he dismisses the professional water diviner, thinking that his own common sense (look for where the land dips down) will save him a lot of money.
Jacob is thus the movie’s immovable force, but Chung pointedly avoids making him either the devil or a fool. He mostly ignores how his attitudes affect his family, and his relationship with Monica is always chilly. He understands his responsibilities, but also thinks that only he can make things right. Consequently, he asks Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn) to move in with them, ostensibly to watch the kids because Jacob and Monica still have to make cash by sexing chicks at a local poultry farm. Soonja, it’s implied, has come straight from Seoul, where she seems to have lived fairly well and cultivated a saucy, unkempt attitude. Her casual obscenities, even in front of her grandchildren, lend the film a welcome element of comic relief, especially given the air of seriousness surrounding the Yees’ marriage and David’s struggles to construct an identity in a place that automatically sees him as an outsider.
Chung takes an episodic approach to the story, whose dramatic arc is perhaps too subtle for it to be as effective as he likes: The ending’s power has more to do with how unexpected it is than anything else. This measured restraint has its good points, the main one being how naturalistic and credible the Yees’ relationship with their white neighbors is; but also its weaknesses, the main one being that the stakes are never fully articulated. And therein, perhaps, lies the difference that Youn was trying to explain in interviews. As a white American (and one who has lived as a white American in Japan for half his life), I can’t hope to make the immediate emotional connections that are so meaningful to Korean-Americans, who come to the film with expectations born of experience. Which probably means I should see it again.
In Korean and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002).
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photo (c) Melissa Lukenbaugh, A24