We are born, we live, and we die. Before we can get on that particular merry-go-round, however, we must first be interviewed. The interrogator is tall, quiet, fastidious, well-dressed. Small granny spectacles perch on his nose as he asks questions of those who sit before him. And when he’s not doing that, he’s reviewing former “vacancies” that he’s filled, watching on a bank of monitors displaying numerous lives in progress. If we are lucky, we are chosen to go forth, from cradle to grave. If not, perhaps the man will do what he can to give us one fleeting moment of happiness before we disappear into the ether.
This is the premise of Nine Days, Edson Oda’s odd, affecting portrait of a prelife purgatory, and half of a serious one-two U.S. Dramatic Competition punch that Sundance unleashed on attendees late in the game. In terms of the narrative features, the festival’s first weekend trotted out some interesting, chatter-inducing titles — notably Zola, Janicza Bravo’s adaptation of an epic Twitter thread involving strippers, pimps, and Florida (for context, see this Rolling Stone article), and Shirley, a sort of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style psychodrama that features an inspired turn by Elisabeth Moss as horror author Shirley Jackson. There was also the quietly devastating Never Sometimes Rarely Always, Eliza Hittman’s teen-pregnancy tale that left folks slightly shell shocked, and the manic glee of the Andy Samberg/Cristin Milioti rom-com Palm Springs (which broke the previous Sundance sales record by 69 cents.) But fiction-wise, there was nothing that made you feel wowed, as if you’d stumbled out of the theater a slightly different person than when you’d walked in — the 2020 edition’s equivalent of last year’s The Farewell, or The Souvenir, or The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Then, just like that, midweek salvation arrived in the form of Oda’s timeless, existential whatsit and Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, a Reagan-era family drama about dislocation, determination, and the meaning of the American dream. Each were familiar enough to fall within two respective, recognizable Sundance categories — high-concept, low-fidelity quirk, and the coming-of-age story. Each were somewhat delicate, and took their time in crafting a cumulative emotional weight without feeling needlessly withholding. And more important, like last year’s three standouts, each restored a sort of faith in the more modest types of films that play among the splashier star-driven projects and scrappier, seat-of-the-pants microbudget calling cards that often dominate in Park City. They are “small” movies that leave big waves in their wake.
First, the prelude-to-humanity parable. A cross between a Gondry-esque chin-stroker and a Zen Buddhist tweak on The Good Place, Nine Days — so named for the length it takes to choose a candidate for birth — has its share of near-twee tics. Will, the stoic gent who’s one of this limbo’s selectors, dresses like an uptight Amish metaphysics professor. (He’s played by Us/Black Panther star Winston Duke, who proves he’s as adept at art-house minimalism as he is at horror/Marvel movie maximalism.) His headquarters is a throwback Craftsman house in the middle of a literal nowhere, and he watches his former picks go about their lives via vintage home-entertainment equipment and videotapes. Before a life begins, it’s represented by color bars and a test-pattern whistle. Last-wish requests turn into arts-and-crafts projects involving fake beach scenes, movie screens, stationary cycles, jaunty music, teary cheeks.
Yet what might seem, at first sneer, like just a hipster’s notion of eternity as an artisanal, analog-tech ghost town, eventually reveals a deeper purpose, and a determination to move past any too-cool-for-film-school superficiality. A Japanese Brazilian filmmaker with a background in commercials, Oda is taking big philosophical swings with his debut: What are the nature of souls? Is a life something to be earned, rather than gifted? Does the beauty of being human outweigh the pain of existence, or do these two elements symbiotically feed off each other, yin to yang? Who are we, before we are anything at all? Having been shaken by seeing a former case study die in a car crash, Will has begun questioning the nature of his endeavor as he and his assistant (Benedict Wong) run through a new batch of candidates, some of whom are played by Tony Hale (funny), Bill Skarsgård (freaky), and Zazie Beetz (fabulous). The latter, in particular, keeps lobbing queries back at the interviewer, forcing him to engage in a way he’d usually rather not. Not to mention the fact that Will is one of the few in this vaguely pastoral purgatory to have actually been on Earth, an experience that still weighs on him.
It’s heavy, heady stuff, coming at you via a delivery system of catalog-worthy set design, magic-hour cinematography, and often tamped-down, deadpan performances. And somehow, it all works in harmony to create a ripple effect of feeling that reverberates strongly under its placid surfaces. (The closest thing Nine Days resembles isn’t something like, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind so much as Columbus, a quiet Sundance alumnus from 2017 that also trafficked in form-and-content exteriors and interior musings.) There were some critics at the fest who felt that the film doesn’t stick the landing, but in a movie that doles out its outbursts very selectively, the display of sound and fury indeed signifies something. The fact that, as of [checks calendar] day nine of Sundance, Oda’s extraordinary, sideways take on life, the universe, and everything remains without distribution should be rectified immediately. It deserves a chance at a life filled with bigger audiences outside of a critic’s snowy festival bubble.
Minari has already secured a patron saint — A24, the current standard-bearers of boutique-label cinema, brought it to the festival. And unlike Nine Days, it arrived with a sense of pedigree: writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s first film, Munyurangabo, about two Rwandan youth, made a huge splash after debuting at Cannes in 2007. His output has been spotty since then, but this semi-autobiographical look at a Korean American family moving to Arkansas in the Eighties couldn’t be more on-point. A beautiful example of cinema à clef done with little blustery sentimentality and a surfeit of grace notes, it’s a textbook example of why that-summer-changed-everything movies are less about the tale than how it’s told.
Chung’s screen counterpart is seven-year-old David (Alan S. Kim), who’s been uprooted from California by his dad (Burning’s Steven Yeun) and relocated to the Natural State. Pops is chasing the dream of starting a farm in order to cultivate Korean vegetables; there’s a growing diaspora in nearby Southern regions, he reasons, and thus a growing market for fresh produce that caters to homesick immigrants. David’s older sister (Noel Cho) rolls with the changes when she’s not eye-rolling her family; Mom (Han Yeri) is harboring resentment over the move and what she perceives is her husband’s selfish folly. Why couldn’t they have stayed out West? He wants 50 acres of good American dirt (“Five acres is a hobby,” the father reasons) and the chance to make something of himself. Obstacles — some external, many more internal — loom on the horizon.
You think you know where all of this is going — and in a way, you do, given that Minari is definitely one of those films in which the complexities of a first-person past is replayed through the eyes of a child. The parental arguing, the appearance of David’s kindly grandmother (Yuh Jung Youn) who’s come to stay with them (“She smells like Korea,” the boy complains), the fish-outta-water experience that’s compounded by the family’s immigrant status: we see all of this through our underage hero’s perspective, even as Chung’s wisdom and wistfulness informs this look back at his childhood. But the film has a habit of gently leaning left when you expect things to swerve right, from the casual racism that quickly defuses itself to the way the elderly relative becomes a co-conspirator instead of an Old World taskmaster. There’s not a false note in any of the performances, though it’s tempting to single out Kim (he’s an astounding performer with a killer blank-reaction face) and Han, who never lets the mother devolve into the cliché of a long-suffering spouse. (Kudos to the great Will Patton, blessing us with a humanistic portrait of the town’s Jesus freak.) Even when the grandmother character threatens to turn into a cute-biddy caricature, the film has a way of pulling things back from the brink of cloying.
When things take a turn for the tragic, you brace for the worst. And still, Chung presents things in a manner that punctures the melodrama without lessening the moments’ impact. In a festival that prizes personal visions and voices, Minari understands exactly how to blend the specific and the universal — that combination of making his story feel like yours. The title, by the way, refers to a plant used in a number of Korean dishes; Grandma brings over seeds from the homeland when she comes to stay with the family. She and David plant them by a creek a short walk from the farm. They can grow virtually anywhere, she tells the boy. And yet the leafy green still retains its native characteristics. Yes, it’s a metaphor. Yes, the film earns using it.