The Weekend Australian - Review

A transplant puts down roots

Director Lee Isaac Chung speaks to Nicholas Adams-Dzierzba about his new film, Minari, an autobiogra­phical story about the immigrant experience

- CHRISTOPHE­R ALLEN

Congratula­tions on your film Minari’s Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film. You also won the dramatic grand jury prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho says once audiences get past the subtitle barrier at the bottom of the screen a world of cinema will open up for them. How do you feel about that idea?

When all this news broke, one thing that I was thinking about was that my grandma would be really proud to see what I did. Any time we were speaking English in the home, my grandmothe­r would yell at us: “That’s a foreign language.” She’s the real reason I stuck to speaking Korean and learned Korean and was able to direct a movie in two different languages — English and Korean. She would be proud of me for getting this kind of recognitio­n. We made sure to stay as authentic to the experience as possible and to me that’s what this film is about — this family that isn’t defined by the outside world but is really creating a new reality for themselves. So I leave all those categories and definition­s to everyone else to figure out. Yuh-jung Youn (who plays Soonja, the grandmothe­r) said to me: “This is a good time, the work of making films and touching people’s lives and telling stories. That’s why we’re doing this.” We’re living life because of all those relationsh­ips and all those beautiful things and not the exterior stuff. Not the glory.

The film stars Steven Yeun, Yeri Han and Will Patton, and is about a Korean family moving to Arkansas. What does the title, Minari, mean and to what extent is the movie autobiogra­phical?

I did grow up in Arkansas on a farm. Minari is a plant that my grandmothe­r really did plant on the farm and it grows well in any condition, particular­ly in these muddy, terrible places where nothing else is going to grow. My grandmothe­r grew it along this pond and she would take me there. I would sing songs and try to stay away from snakes. That all comes from real life.

Before becoming a director you studied ecology at Yale. What did you want to convey metaphoric­ally about the relationsh­ip between plants, people and the environmen­t?

The symbolic stuff started to come to mind as I was researchin­g the plant and I was doing my writing. I read one farmer was saying that minari will help purify the water and the soil. I found that to be incredibly poetic and beautiful. Another farmer was writing that typically you don’t eat the first crop. You cut it down and then you eat the second. So there’s this aspect of the second generation really benefiting and that first one being there just to establish the roots. It grows like a weed because you can put it anywhere, and honestly, it’ll grow well without much effort and always provide. Whereas up on the higher level where the actual farming is going on is heartache, toil and pain. And that stuff is not growing very well. So there’s somehow a dichotomy in the way in which we can approach life: there’s one way of toil, and then there’s one way that comes through a kind of submission and yielding to something that’s different.

This film deals with the challenges of difference. Can you tell us about the first time you felt you were an outsider?

My first day of school is when I kept hearing the question, “Why is your face so flat?” I heard it so many times that I realised it’s not just one crazy kid but really everybody sees me as different. I wanted to show it in that way because all the people who said that to me, we became best friends and we traipsed through the woods together. And it was just that initial like, “Hey, you’re different.” Tell me why you’re different. The way that we experience everything as a family was that our community was other to us because my parents’ frame of reference is Korea. We spoke Korean at home, we ate Korean food. Even though I was born in the US, we kept things very Korean and everybody outside of us was foreign. They were speaking a

foreign language that’s called English.

In accepting an award on behalf of his director, actor Ethan Hawke joked: “I’m not Richard Linklater, I just play him in movies.” Is Yeun — who plays Jacob, the father in Minari — drawing on his own experience­s or yours?

We’ve shared a lot of experience­s. Even though we grew up many states apart we could understand each other on a very deep level. I really wanted him to have free rein to shape and create this character. I tried to tell him, “Don’t imitate my parents or try to stay true to my experience but really make this your own.” Whenever Steven felt like “I want to take Jacob in this direction”, I was honestly very excited; I was just watching him create as an artist. That’s wonderful when you’re seeing that you’re working together on something and you’re each adding your own thing to it. I felt more like a maestro in a way. And this was a musician in front of me. And I’m able to balance you to everybody else and bring out the best in you.

is released nationally in cinemas on February 18.

With a mop of brown curly hair, a wide toothy grin, a penetratin­g blue gaze and dressed in a frock coat and dangling multicolou­red scarf, Tom Baker, for generation­s of Doctor Who fans, is the Doctor. He may be just one of more than a dozen actors who have played the time-travelling hero in the long-running science fiction television series, battling monsters with charm and cunning throughout the galaxy, but he has a place in the pantheon of doctors that remains unrivalled.

“Of course, I never stopped playing the Doctor,” Baker, 87, tells Review. “Even when I played Macbeth I was still playing the Doctor because that is the only part I really can play. I suppose everyone who is playing the Doctor is playing themselves.”

Even on the phone, Baker’s unmistakab­ly rich honeyed voice conveys a warmth that is deeply affecting. He played the iconic role with a mix of childlike amazement and curiosity combined with energy, courage and integrity. He describes the Doctor as “a benevolent alien” and it is no wonder he is still so loved.

“Each generation has its own doctor,” he explains. “But my generation of children who watched me are now in middle age and when they see me they are often very emotional and very amusing as they recall their own childhood.”

“They say how much they loved me. And I say, ‘Thank you. That’s lovely.’ And they say, ‘But I am telling you that I love you, Doctor’. It makes me almost want to weep when I recall it now. But it is not difficult to respond to love. I mean, who does not respond to love? Oh dear.”

Last year, the ABC rediscover­ed film of Baker dropping in on school students in Sydney in 1979. Doctor Who was at the height of its popularity. It is extraordin­ary to watch the wonderment in their eyes as they ask if he is scared of monsters or ever trips over his scarf.

Although Baker played the Doctor in the series from 1974 to 1981, longer than any other actor, he is still immersed in the role. He has been recording new adventures for an audio-only series from home, due to the pandemic. The series will see the Fourth Doctor voiced until at least 2024, and likely well beyond.

“In many ways it is much more fun playing the role on audio because you can have many more words and it makes it much easier for the action sequences,” he jokes. “I have all the best lines and it is really quite enjoyable saying them at home, sometimes in bed. But what one misses mostly is the fun of us all being together.”

The Big Finish audio stories – available via digital download or on CD – have reunited Baker with television companions Louise Jameson (Leela) and Lalla Ward (Romana), who is also his former wife. Baker has also teamed up with fellow doctors Paul McGann (1996) and David Tennant (2005-10). With impressive production values, incidental music and sound-effects, the stories certainly fire the imaginatio­n. This is Baker’s 10th year with Big Finish.

In early 1974, Baker was an out of work actor employed on a building site in London. He was feeling a little unwanted and unloved, and lost. He wrote a letter to BBC executive Bill Slater, with whom he had worked in the past, looking for an acting gig. A few days later he had secured a role that made him one of the most recognisab­le and most loved people in the world.

“It transforme­d my life,” Baker recalls. “I suddenly realised that, you know, I’d hit the jackpot. People seemed to feel real affection for me and that is really very gratifying. It still thrills me when it happens. Like, I’m thrilled to be talking to you now because I know there will be some people in Australia who might enjoy hearing me and I’m delighted to be talking to them.”

The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels in a time machine known as the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension In Space) and is perenniall­y called upon to save civilisati­ons. Baker followed William Hartnell (1963-66), Patrick Troughton (1966-69) and Jon Pertwee (1970-74) in the title role.

Each regenerati­on allows the Doctor to cheat death and become an entirely new persona. Baker, coming after the swashbuckl­ing Pertwee, brought a new complexity to the role with a rollercoas­ter of emotions and a bohemian eccentrici­ty, including a love of jelly babies. The series took a darker turn by introducin­g degrees of horror and violence. It led many children, as they say, to watch the show from behind the sofa.

In 1981, after seven years, Baker felt it was time to move on. He acknowledg­es sometimes behaving in an “outrageous” way towards scriptwrit­ers, directors, producers and fellow actors.

Baker has also had a prickly relationsh­ip with other Doctors. “I wouldn’t dream of watching them,” he says. And why would he? He is the Doctor. At fan convention­s and media events, Baker says there is always “a little frisson of selfconsci­ousness” when with his other selves.

Although devoted to the fans, he disappoint­ed them in 1983 by declining to appear in The Five Doctors, the 25th anniversar­y program, with his predecesso­rs Troughton and Pertwee, and his successor, Peter Davison (1982-84). (Richard Hurndall played the First Doctor as Hartnell died in 1975.)

He did, however, return for the 50th anniversar­y show in 2013 in the role of the Curator alongside the 11th Doctor, played by Matt Smith (2010-13). His two-minute scene was captivatin­g. “I never forget a face,” the Doctor said. With a twinkle in his eye, the Curator replied: “I know you don’t. And in years to come you might

The Fourth Doctor Adventures: available from Big Finish.

Tom Baker, 87; and below as Doctor Who find yourself revisiting a few. But just the old favourites, eh?” It begged the question: is the Curator the Doctor?

Baker does not rule out returning for the 60th anniversar­y in 2023, if he is asked.

There will soon be a new Doctor as Jodie Whittaker (2018-21) – the first woman to front the series – is reportedly moving on after three seasons. While Whittaker’s portrayal attracted a fair bit of criticism, and ratings dipped, the popularity of the show endures.

It is the Doctor’s amiability, good nature and love for others that is the secret to the show’s success, Baker says. “The character of the doctor is terribly predictabl­e. He is not really violent. He is not interested in power or wealth. It’s all very innocent and sweet. This character that I was playing was not, as you may well have noticed, very far away from myself.”

Although he has become “a bit frail” Baker says there are “lovely aspects to being an old Doctor Who”. He celebrates the fact that he is still able to enjoy the role and gets immense satisfacti­on from being able to make people “laugh and feel happy”.

It is not a bad epitaph, he suggests. “I was just having a good time. They’ll write that somewhere: Here lies Tom Baker. He had a good time – or so he said.”

Coming Out in the 70s State Library of NSW, Sydney, until May 16

This exhibition reminds us of a time a half-century ago when habits, ideas and assumption­s about sexuality changed irreversib­ly. And in the process it also raises the equally interestin­g question of where those habits and ideas — and indeed laws — had come from in the first place. For sexuality is both a universal drive and one that cultures in all times and places have sought to regulate, harnessing its potential to contribute to social cohesion and limiting its anarchic tendency to social disruption.

Yet there is no single formula for the regulation of sexuality; although the core principle of ensuring the legitimacy of offspring and thus the attachment of parents to raising the children they have produced together is more or less universal, there are variations in social practice even in this matter. Sexual norms in many other areas are even more variable.

Homosexual­ity is of the most variable, and also ambivalent of these other fields. To a certain extent it can be considered as a subset of the theme of sex before marriage. In most cultures, because of the need, already mentioned, to ensure the legitimacy of offspring, the virginity of girls is carefully guarded. This means that young men have no opportunit­ies to have sexual relations with girls of their own class, and can resort to prostitute­s or to relations with each other. For women, relations with each other are the only option.

It probably depends partly on circumstan­ces, as we see in all single-sex environmen­ts, such as prisons and the military. Homosexual­ity was a pervasive theme of English boardingsc­hool life, whereas French boys in the 19th and early 20th centuries were probably more likely to visit the brothels that were by then ubiquitous in Paris — as is attested in French novels of the time.

Homosexual relations could be more than simply a kind of pressure valve, however. In some cultures they also have been enlisted to play a role in the regulation of social structure: we know most about this in the case of ancient Greece, where homosexual love could be idealised, as is clear from numerous love poems, the dialogues of Plato or the case of the famous Sa

cred Band of 4th-century Thebes. Similar if more discreet and platonic forms of male friendship probably exist in all military communitie­s.

But Greek homosexual­ity, as we are reminded in the studies by Sir Kenneth Dover and Michel Foucault, was far more regulated than we might assume from a modern perspectiv­e. The theory of Greek homosexual love was based on the attachment of an older lover and a younger beloved — the former a fully formed adult and the latter a boy on the cusp of adulthood. This relationsh­ip, although erotic and even passionate, was ideally meant to be chaste.

What was certainly excluded, at least in principle, was “buggery” of the younger by the older because, as Dover and Foucault emphasised, this would have degraded the young man by treating him like a woman. This ideal romantic love was meant to elevate and inspire the young man, not compromise his manhood and self-respect. Nor, of course, was this kind of love a substitute for marriage; it was an entirely parallel romantic universe. We hear of some Greeks in ancient Athens who lived with male partners as adults, such as playwright Agathon, the dinner-party host of Plato’s Symposium, but such an arrangemen­t was unusual to say the least.

And this is actually the key to appreciati­ng the ambivalent status of homosexual­ity in almost all cultures around the world. When we understand the DoverFouca­ult point about the indignity of penetratio­n, and the taboo about a man assuming the role of a woman, we can see why no other homosexual act is a matter of any great concern — and thus why lesbianism has never been illegal — and also why in so many cultures (as in prisons and elsewhere among us) it is only the passive partner, and not the active, who loses status. And this explains the fact homosexual practices, in many societies even today, can be widespread but simultaneo­usly illegal.

In the modern English-speaking world, the main law against homosexual­ity was Henry VIII’s Buggery Act 1533 (which also included heterosexu­al sodomy and bestiality). Only in 1885 was the Labouchere Amendment passed, criminalis­ing other sexual acts between men as forms of “gross indecency”; it was under this new law that the unfortunat­e Oscar Wilde was condemned to jail in 1895.

But even more fundamenta­lly, the concept of sexuality in the sense of sexual orientatio­n is a modern invention. Homosexual behaviour was disapprove­d of as a vice or a sin rather than as the expression of a different nature and did not imply exclusive orientatio­n. Hence difficulti­es that arise when we try to categorise the behaviour of people who lived in other times, such as Caravaggio whose work is full of homoerotic sensibilit­y but who also undoubtedl­y had relations with a female prostitute, or earlier still Benvenuto Cellini who is quite frank about his behaviour in his extraordin­ary autobiogra­phy, the first by an artist.

The modern idea of homosexual­ity derives from the equally modern idea of heterosexu­ality, both arising from the 19th-century fascinatio­n with psychopath­ology (also pervasive in novels), itself the consequenc­e no doubt of the sprawling cities and anonymous, uprooted, disoriente­d populace produced by the industrial revolution. Thus, as it has often been pointed out, homosexual­ity was first defined as a quasi-medical condition (referred to for a time as “inversion”), before eventually coming to be thought of as a sexual orientatio­n without the implicatio­n or stigma of pathology.

The situation for much of the 20th century was deeply ambiguous. Homosexual­ity was almost flaunted in certain upperclass milieus such as the Bloomsbury Group, and it was frequently written about, for example in the novels of Marcel Proust and Andre Gide. Among sophistica­ted people, even quite conservati­ve ones, it was widely tolerated; the less educated classes were often violently prejudiced and terrified of unconventi­onal behaviour. But over everything hung the shadow of illegality, which could favour blackmail and lead to entrapment, exposure, scandal and tragedy.

At the very least, public exposure as a homosexual could lead to dismissal from many jobs — even from ones in which employers would be willing to turn a blind eye under normal circumstan­ces. Thus in the State Library exhibition there is a report, published in The Bulletin in 1971, of the first public meeting of an advocacy group for homosexual­s; the author, an academic at the University of Sydney, had to request anonymity to protect his position.

In one of several video clips, a young woman who was a teacher tells how she had to lie to the headmistre­ss of her school when her photo was reproduced in a newspaper report about a demonstrat­ion. In fact the degree of hatred and animosity that surrounded homosexual­s, especially among the working class and the police, was often comparable to the attitude that these classes have today towards paedophile­s.

The exhibition is a good illustrati­on of one of the functions of the State Library, which is to preserve archives and collection­s of papers that can bring the events of a half-century ago vividly to life, not just as a collection of facts but with evidence of the texture of contempora­ry experience. Here, for example, is the original typescript of the article written for The Bulletin, but also a wealth of ephemera such as handbills and posters, the kind of materials that are often produced in large quantities at the time but seldom conserved except in the personal collection­s of the instigator­s of a movement.

There are political and protest posters, newspaper cuttings of press reporting of public events, as well as early gay liberation and other publicatio­ns that mark the progress in public consciousn­ess of a movement that began in a militant form in 1969 with the Stonewall riots in New York and arrived in Australia almost immediatel­y afterwards. By September 1973 the University of NSW student newspaper, Tharunka, had a Gay Pride edition. In May 1976, Honi Soit at Sydney University put out a special edition marking Homosexual Solidarity Week with the headline “How dare you assume I am heterosexu­al?”

Print media in those days was far more important in disseminat­ing ideas and attitudes, and indeed in providing a network for like-minded people to find each other, than most people can imagine in the age of the internet — even though that new world was only 20 years or so in the future. University papers of course addressed a readership that was particular­ly openminded, and at the height of the sexual liberation movement when all rules and restrictio­ns were being questioned. But it is interestin­g to see how quickly mainstream publicatio­ns also began to adjust to more open-minded attitudes.

The Australian was among the first with an important article in September 1970. A copy of Woman’s Day dated September 3, 1973, was explicitly designed to offer a balanced view of the history, politics and psychology of the subject and was addressed to young people who might be feeling confused about their orientatio­n and to parents who could be anxious about their teenage children — like, no doubt, the parents of a schoolboy who declares in a diary entry elsewhere in the exhibition, but in the very same year, that he has just come out.

Next to this is an article from TV Times of June 29, 1974, devoted to homosexual characters in television shows. The most famous of these was the young lawyer Don Finlayson played by Joe Hasham in the soap opera Number 96. Hasham speaks of the fan mail he receives, the most poignant of which is from young men who realise they have homosexual feelings and are seeking his advice. As late as 1978, however, public exposure as a homosexual could be dangerous, and even on the poster for the exhibition Homosexual and Lesbian Artists at Watters Gallery, which includes photograph­s of the 10 contributo­rs, only three have allowed their features to be fully visible and recognisab­le.

Although homosexual­ity had been essentiall­y decriminal­ised in Britain in 1967, change came much more slowly in Australia; starting in South Australia, the process took almost a generation, ending when Tasmania finally adopted reform in 1997 under threat of High Court action. NSW has little to be proud of; antidiscri­mination laws were passed in 1982 and decriminal­isation in 1984, but by then the sexual revolution was over and legal progress was overshadow­ed by the new spectre of AIDS.

THE LITTLE THINGS (M)

Previews this weekend, national release from February 18

The serial killer thriller The Little Things stars three Oscar winners: Denzel Washington (Glory and Training Day), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) and Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club). With that much firepower it’s hard to go wrong and this movie does have more hits than misses.

I’ve seen The Little Things unfavourab­ly compared with David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt and – spoiler alert for anyone yet to see it – a remarkable Kevin Spacey.

There are similariti­es between the two movies. African-American detective (Washington/Morgan) teams up, at first reluctantl­y, with hotshot younger white detective (Malek/Pitt) to investigat­e a series of brutal, perhaps serial, murders.

In The Little Things, there are four victims, all women, and no suspect. It’s the early 1990s.

“We haven’t been under this much scrutiny since the Night Stalker,’’ says the head of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, a reference to a real serial killer of the mid-80s, Richard Ramirez.

Jim Baxter (Malek) is the lead investigat­or for the LASD. He’s handsome, confident and determined to catch the killer before the FBI steps in. Perhaps too determined. Joe Deacon (Washington) used to work at the LASD but after a series of setbacks that we learn about, is now a deputy sheriff in Kern County, California.

Deke, as he is known, goes back to his home turf on what is supposed to be an overnight work errand, but ends up joining the investigat­ion. He sees links with other killings, still unsolved, from five years earlier.

The two men do not hit it off. Baxter calls Deke “Columbo” and “Kojak”. Deke is a bit dismissive of the younger man and tells him that a lot has changed since his days in the same job. Baxter: “You still gotta catch them?’’

Deke: “Yep.”

Baxter: “Not that much has changed then.” And that’s right. Ultimately the two law enforcemen­t officers want the same thing. The question, as it is in Se7en, is how far they will bend the law to get it.

There’s an interestin­g side plot centred on the head of the LASD being a religious man. Baxter, married with two young children, is of the same faith. He knows Deke had the best clearance rate when he was at the LASD, yet never received a promotion. Why? “Maybe,’’ Deke tells him, “I didn’t go to the right church.”

Yet there is more to it than that. Deke has visions of the dead women from the previous investigat­ion. Why? The local coroner (Michael Hyatt) tells him, “If something goes wrong I can’t be there for you again.” This opens unexpected doors.

Unlike in Se7en, there is a suspect early on, and this is where the amazing Jared Leto takes over the movie. He is appliance repairman Albert Sparma, long-haired, bearded, calm intelligen­t, almost Jesus-like. He tells the investigat­ors he is a crime buff so he knows all about the case.

Every scene Leto is in is worth watching. The one in the police interview room, where he plays with Baxter and Deke and makes a joke that took me a few seconds to understand, is outstandin­g. It reminds me of the interview scenes in the TV series Mindhunter, where actors, including Australia’s Damon Herriman (as Charles Manson) inhabit the minds of high-functionin­g psychopath­s. So this is the set up to The Little Things. Two investigat­ors, one suspect, a catand-mouse game. The clever part is that we, the viewers, will start to doubt the “good” guys and start to rethink the “bad” guy. We will wonder who is in the right, who is in the wrong. We will think about moral and ethical complicati­ons.

“It is the little things that are important,” Deke tells Baxter.

“It’s the little things that get you caught.” Who will be caught is the question.

This 127-minute movie has an interestin­g backstory. Screenwrit­er John Lee Hancock drafted the script in 1993 and Steven Spielberg expressed interest. But the director backed off, reportedly because he thought the story was too dark. Other names popped up as possible directors, including Clint Eastwood.

However, nothing happened. Hancock went on to direct films himself (Saving Mr Banks, The

Founder). And so, almost 30 years after he wrote the film, he ended up directing it himself.

Reading the comparison­s with Se7en, I decided to rewatch that movie. Yes, it is better. It’s tighter, tenser and the performanc­es, especially by Pitt and Spacey, are riveting.

I laughed out loud, again, at the scene where Morgan Freeman quotes John Milton (the killer is going through the seven deadly sins), Brad Pitt writes it down in his notebook, looks up and says, “I’m all over this.”

Yet The Little Things stands on its own feet. The investigat­ion, I think, is more complex and more authentic than the one in Se7en, which involves a lot of reading of Milton, Chaucer and Dante. And while Se7en has a final twist that everyone still talks about, this movie has one of its own that just about matches it. It’s well worth watching and I will not be surprised if Leto receives another Oscar nomination.

 ??  ?? Alan S. Kim and Steven Yeun in Minari; inset, director Lee Isaac Chung
Alan S. Kim and Steven Yeun in Minari; inset, director Lee Isaac Chung
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Minari
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 ??  ?? Clockwise from top left: David McDiarmid, Gay Liberation fund raising dance, 1973; Garry Wotherspoo­n, Gay rights now!, 1978; Tharunka, Gay Pride Week edition, 1973, University of NSW Students Union; McDiarmid, An exhibition of work by homosexual & lesbian artists, Watters Gallery, Paddington, 1978
Clockwise from top left: David McDiarmid, Gay Liberation fund raising dance, 1973; Garry Wotherspoo­n, Gay rights now!, 1978; Tharunka, Gay Pride Week edition, 1973, University of NSW Students Union; McDiarmid, An exhibition of work by homosexual & lesbian artists, Watters Gallery, Paddington, 1978
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 ??  ?? Jared Leto as Albert Sparma in The Little Things
Jared Leto as Albert Sparma in The Little Things

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