The Sundance Film Festival is typically a strong hub for breakout indies that are U.S.-based and in the English language. However, the two best films from this year’s festival are not only foreign language titles, but interestingly, pictures about people trying to build a better life for themselves in America. One thrives thanks to its filmmaking flare while the other succeeds with its simple balance of humor and drama.
The former film is I Carry You with Me, a harmonious portrait of queer love that also shows how love can transcend distance. As aspiring chef Ivan (Armando Espitia) falls for Gerardo (Christian Vazquez), their relationship gets put to the test once Ivan sneaks across the border to make his aspirations come true. As the film leads up to the moment Ivan sets off for New York City and depicts their blissful romance, it becomes beautiful yet pretty melancholic to watch.
Juan Pablo Ramirez’s cinematography is quite inviting as it closes in on Ivan and Gerardo expressing their affection for one another, capturing them kissing under the glistening sun. Yet, as they become faced with Ivan’s eventual decision, it’s hard to come to grips with them not being together and the up-close camerawork is a vital component to that heartbreak. The chemistry between actors Armando Espitia and Christian Vazquez certainly adds to the feeling of us not wanting them to be apart.
Their separation also becomes a commentary on Mexican immigration with the protagonists refreshingly portrayed as humanized, non-stereotypical characterizations. Director/co-writer Heidi Ewing, who makes her narrative feature debut, handles the material with a deft hand and as a result, has created a bittersweet love story that is bound to have emotions running by the time it ends.
As for Minari, it emphasizes the importance of family values. It follows a Korean family that moves from the West Coast to Arkansas in order to fulfill the American Dream. Something that Jacob (Steven Yeun), the family patriarch, is interested in so he and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) can get out of the monotonous job of chicken sexing. Their plans become complicated once Monica’s traditionalist mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-Jung) moves in with them.
Soon-ja’s arrival forces the family to confront their need to conform to American customs while staying true to their own. While all the actors are terrific as the main family unit, truthfully, it is Youn Yuh-Jung who is the picture’s heart and soul as Soon-ji. She serves as its emotional crux as she balances humor, thanks to a running gag about Mountain Dew, and pathos with her undying devotion to her difficult grandson. We may have already put the Academy Awards behind us for now, but there’s already a case for Youn to be a potential Best Supporting Actress contender.
Meanwhile, Steven Yeun does a complete 180 from his critically lauded portrayal of the mysterious Ben in Burning as he plays a father who selfishly tries fulfilling his own desires while trying to provide for his loved ones. As for Han Ye-ri, she is a quiet force as Monica, letting her expressive eyes process every doomed decision Jacob keeps making. Both Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho do an impressive job as well as the son and daughter, respectively, and along with the other actors, make the central family seem easily relatable.
Although the story is culturally specific, thanks to the performances and the screenplay by writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, it still has universal appeal. People can see the film and relate to the need to fulfill the American Dream along with the struggle of wanting to feel at home in a new place. But as they say, home is where the heart is and Minari certainly blossoms thanks to its genuine, heart wrenching portrait of home and family. Much like I Carry You with Me, this is another one that’ll tug the heartstrings.