Saturday, November 28, 2020

REVIEW: Nomadland

Much ado has been made over the past decade about the supposed neglect of Middle America - or more condescendingly, "real America" - by the "coastal elites" and "liberal media". During his election campaigns and presidency, Donald Trump pandered to the beliefs that immigrants were stealing jobs and contributing to a culture of "immoral" progressive values over conservative tradition. And yet, one of the most beautifully empathetic films about the working class struggle was directed by a Chinese woman based in Los Angeles. In "Nomadland", Chloe Zhao takes audiences on a breathtaking journey into America's heartland, exploring the perspective of one woman and her newfound way of life.

Indeed, Fern (Frances McDormand) knows a thing or two about the blue-collar lifestyle. She spent much of her life in a factory town established around US Gypsum, a manufacturer of sheetrock and other construction materials. In the wake of the recession, however, the plant shuts down, leaving the residents of Empire, Nevada bereft. Exacerbated by the death of her husband, a company man, Fern thus finds herself unmoored. Fueled by her innate will to live and pick up the pieces, she then musters the courage to embark on adventure through the American West, living out of her van as a modern nomad.

The power and impact of large corporations is acutely felt through "Nomadland." Apart from US Gypsum, the historically successful Amazon company looms large over this story as one of the main sources of employment for Fern and some of the people she meets along the way. Drawing attention to Amazon and its recognizable signage - as opposed to an unnamed or fictional company - Zhao shrewdly places "Nomadland" within the present day. And if there is anything we learned in 2020, is that America prioritizes the economy and big businesses above all else.

What makes "Nomadland" so special therefore, is how it functions as a reclamation of America from its capitalist ideals and focuses instead on the people whose livelihoods often depend on the production line. Indeed, many of the nomads Fern encounters have been "workhorses" as one man puts it . Brimming with stories about their life experiences, we listen to them around campfires and chance meetings across the vast terrain of Fern's quest. 

"Nomadland" isn't the first film to center a narrative on people who have chosen an unconventional lifestyle. But Zhao's simple, yet profound vision outshines them through its relatability. Fern isn't trying to "find herself" or reject modern society and technology like a counterculture hippie. Her desire is to reconnect with other people and restore the pleasures of nature and friendship to her life. 

What results is a story that is both personal and universal, told with the heartfelt, plainspoken authenticity of a documentary approach. You don't need to do any research to learn that many of the supporting characters are non-actors and real life nomads. And their naturalism is shared by McDormand in an exceptionally lived-in performance. Effectively acting as a surrogate for Zhao and the audience, her performance is largely reactive, filled with moments of active listening. Completely lacking in vanity, she finds real depths of emotion and feeling.

Aside from the touching humanity on display, what elevates "Nomadland" into the realm of the sublime is the supplemental artistry that Zhao and her craftsmen lend to the narrative. Most notably, Ludovic Einaudi's serene music - taken from his album "Seven Days Walking" - and Joshua James Richards' majestic cinematography, which takes full advantage of natural light to accentuate the preciousness of community and the effortless beauty of the American landscape. "Nomadland" may not convince you to drop everything and become a wandering nomad, nor does it ask you to. But its exhortation to embrace the simple things in spite of the pain of grief and suffering is deeply moving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

REVIEW: Minari

With his duly award-winning new feature "Minari", filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung has delivered one of 2020's quintessentially American stories. Based on his own childhood experiences, it follows a Korean-American family as they settle into their new home in Arkansas. At once a classic and undeniably contemporary immigrant drama, this special film is a touchingly empathetic piece of storytelling.

Indeed, while its 1980s setting and Korean characters point towards more recent waves of immigration, the opening scenes of "Minari" harken back to the first settlers on the American frontier. As the Yi family make their way towards their new land in the middle of nowhere, the promise of a vast land of plenty awaits. Adapting Western iconography, however, the iconic horse-drawn wagons and homesteads are replaced by a family sedan, moving truck and mobile home. Having abandoned the city life of their previous LA abode, the family's patriarch Jacob (Steven Yuen) has big dreams for his new farmland. But this modest small town life may prove to be too much of a culture shock for his wife (played by Han Ye-ri) and their two young children.

The American Dream indeed looks different for each family, all of whom fall on various spectrums of American assimilation. With his desire to build a thriving farm of Korean produce, Jacob is the model of the traditional economic migrant. He clings to his culture while forging an optimistic future through hard work, discipline and sacrifice. The rest of his family, however, are more inclined towards the immediate comforts of a more urban lifestyle. 

The tensions between their viewpoints is what propels Chung's wonderfully humane script, illuminated through fully realized performances from the cast. The partnership and understanding subtly conveyed by Yuen and Ye-ri for example, makes their widening rift all the more heartbreaking. Meanwhile, the inversely burgeoning relationship between David and his newly arrived grandmother becomes the heart of the film. 

With easily the year's most adorable child performance so far, Chung uses his surrogate David (played by Alan Kim) to explore both the humor and poignancy of growing up as a confused first generation immigrant. As he inbibes his "mountain water" (i.e. Mountain Dew), he laments the fact that Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) is not a "real grandmother" who cooks and bakes cookies. But before long, they become the best of friends, with their scenes together providing some of the film's most heartrending emotions. 

Though its sunny photography and largely welcoming community - a major relief considering rural red state setting - may fool you into thinking otherwise, the Yi family will face their share of struggles. But what "Minari" beautifully portrays is how family and friendship can enrich the simplest ways of life, where a weekly church service represents the only significant social activity. In its unique way, "Minari" therefore celebrates the often underappreciated shared humanity between the immigrant experience and small town America. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

REVIEW: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" - a stunning play now adapted for the big screen by director George C. Wolfe - would be nothing without the profound words of playwright August Wilson. But the earlier musings of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes also echo throughout this tragic tale about the black experience in America. Set in 1920s Chicago, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" is a heartrending exploration of what can happen to a dream deferred. 

Of course, there's no greater dream than the American Dream, which for many black people in the post-reconstruction era was symbolized through The Great Migration. That mass exodus is quickly referenced in the film, whereby advertisements portrayed the North as the Promised Land for the downtrodden in the South, proclaiming a bounty of employment opportunities and a better life. But the fantasy soon gave way to disillusionment for many, including singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her upstart trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman). Despite achieving success as the "Mother of the Blues", Ma Rainey becomes weary of exploitation underlying her professional relationships with her white manager and producer. Meanwhile, Levee is still fueled by fierce ambition, despite his own experiences with trauma at the hands of white men. As they both fight to overcome their "glass ceilings," tensions also flare up between them and the rest of the band during one fateful recording session.

Before the characters get to dig into the dialogue of Ruben Santiago-Hudson's expressive screenplay, the music takes the spotlight. The film opens in a show-stopping number with Ma Rainey leading the way, letting us know how she got her esteemed moniker. As we're introduced to her in caked up makeup, gold teeth and striking figure, Ma Rainey is unforgettable even before she croons her first lyric. She is truly one of the year's most eye-catching creations of makeup, hairstyling and costume design.

It's through Viola Davis' incomparable acting, however, that Ma Rainey's commanding, unapologetic personality come to life. In a career full of memorable performances, this is her most transformative and challenging role to date. With every swish of her hips, sharp retort and indulgent gulp of Coca-Cola, she is the physical manifestation of a woman "taking up space" and "reclaiming her time." 

Unfortunately, all the talent, self-assurance and ambition is no match for institutional racism. And this is most painfully evoked through the perspective of Levee in his interactions with his band-mates (perfectly portrayed by Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo and Michael Potts) and other characters. As he reflects upon the horrors of his past with an optimistic gaze towards his future, the bittersweet themes of the film hit home. Ultimately, Levee's struggles to fulfill his dreams take on an unanticipated metatextual resonance, as the late Chadwick Boseman's astonishingly dynamic and charismatic performance reminds us of a promising future that can no longer come to pass. I can hardly think of a more fitting final act for his career than this.