The movie loses tension at certain points, relying a bit too strongly on atmospheric nature shots and a haunting score that seems to be performed on a slightly out-of-tune upright piano, and sometimes punting conflicts down the timeline when the viewer may want a bit more examination of them at that moment. But Chung’s grip as a storyteller remains sure. There is a ring of truth to every moment and conversation. The best of these are imbued with a complexity and contradiction that suggests that there’s more to human interactions than whatever advice we were given as kids. A moment after church when young David is casually racially insulted by a young white boy who then immediately speaks to him as a friend, and invites him over to a sleepover, will ring true to anyone who has been on the receiving end of that type of behavior. Everyone in this movie is still learning the right way to behave, including the adults.
The supporting characters are vividly drawn. The great American character actor Will Patton is superb as an evangelical Christian farmer who praises Jesus every minute and is glimpsed in one scene carrying a big wooden cross on his back as he walks along the country road. (Jacob asks if he wants a ride and he says no, he’s got this.) But the best performance belongs to Yuh-Jung Youn as Soonja, Jacob’s grandmother, who is brought in from the old country to provide advice and childcare help. She is a live wire—a cosmopolitan who always speaks her mind and is at ease with profanity, practical joking, and making moral/ethical decisions that could have major repercussions without consulting Jacob or Monica. (When Monica puts a $100 bill in the church collection plate, presumably to make a big impression during their first visit, grandma deftly removes it.)
Chung has a knack for capturing those moments when people behave according to their own internal compass, in ways that may not make sense to an outside observer. And it’s impossible not to appreciate the deep understanding of human behavior, as well as the way that ordinary objects and situations acquire symbolic meaning when we think about them in relation to the characters. This is a lovely, unique film.
Opening today, December 11th, for a limited release qualifying run before a wider release in 2021.