Minari Mildly Overhyped, but Sweet


MINARI (2020)

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

A24 Films, 115 minutes, PG-13

In English and Korean (with subtitles)




Minari is director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical remembrance of his boyhood. Set in 1983, it follows the Korean-born Yi family, which moves from California to Arkansas so that paterfamilias Jacob (Steven Yeun) can pursue his dream of farming his own land. Another reason is to provide his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) with a slower pace of life so she won’t lose her job. Both need the income from their unglamorous job of sexing chicks.


Jacob promises that the land will soon Monica and their children: 7-year-old David (Alan Kim) and pre-adolescent Anne (Noel Kate Cho). Suffice it say that Minari is not a Korean version of The Biggest Little Farm. Steven fancies himself a savvy Americanized immigrant, but his confidence is greater than his understanding of how hard it is to find water, till long-dormant land, or generate enough money to escape the chick-sexing line. He bungles a few essential things, like money conversion. He nearly loses $100 to a church collection plate. In 1983, there were more than 2,200 Korean won to a U.S. dollar, so you definitely don’t want your Korean mind to kick in at such a moment!


Culture clash moments are among the film’s more memorable moments. The Yi family has left a Korean enclave in California to enter a world of trailer home living, the polite smiles of locals who (at best) see them as exotic, and charismatic Christianity. Hired man Paul (Will Paton) is so religious that he casts out demons and each Sunday shoulders a wooden cross on wheels down dusty roads.  


It’s all too much for Monica, who threatens to return to California. Instead, Steven sends for her mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to come live with them. She is a pistol and not necessarily the best role model for kids. Soon-ja sees no harm in teaching children adult card games or letting loose with Korean swears. She terrifies David, not to mention that he must share his bedroom with his crazy grandmother.


Much of the film focuses on Soon-ja’s relationship with the kids, especially David. She helps him overcome his shyness, thinks his weak heart is nonsense, and prescribes vigorous outdoor life. The two share a secret minari garden deep in the woods by a creek bed. (Minari is an edible member of the water dropwort family sometimes called Chinese celery, though it looks more like parsley.) 


Minari captured hearts at Sundance and won various film awards around the globe. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, and Yuh-jong made history by be4coming the first Korean to win a best supporting actress Oscar. She did a nice job of playing a crotchety old woman filled the brim with joie de vivre. It’s not a pathbreaking performance by any means, though it’s probably deserved recognition given her competition. (Few have seen the films in which the other four nominees appeared, though I would argue that Olivia Colman had a meatier role in The Father.) Given a choice, I might have honored two different performances from Minari. Now 9-year-old Alan Kim is a heart-stealer who expertly handled a role in which he was akin to a small bird pecking away at his entrapping shell piece by tiny piece. Will Patton is at the other end of the performance spectrum. His Paul is a tetched evangelical Don Quixote, but he’s also a lovable, kind Korean War vet trying to live his faith as he understands it.


Not much happens in Minari that’s out of the ordinary. It was undoubtedly Chung’s intention to spin a yarn about an “American” family that simply happens to be Korean. The film is so much about everyday life–its triumphs, challenges, and tragedies–that instead of building to a dramatic conclusion, it simply ends with the Yi family opting to take root where they are. Minari is overhyped, but there’s no harm in partaking of a sweet slice-of life film, even if the portion is thinner than advertised.


Rob Weir


Don't Confuse Andrew Shaffer with a Poet


LOOK MOM I’M A POET (and so is my cat) (2021)

By Andrew Shaffer

Dime House Press, 146 pages.




The best thing about Andrew Shaffer’s chapbook is the cover. Seriously. It’s festooned with a (vaguely) Victorian man holding an opossum. It’s all downhill from there.


Let's start with the title. Shaffer is not a poet. There’s a difference between doggerel and a dog’s breakfast. These days everyone who puts words into a rap or fills a screen with unorthodox spacing fancies themselves the next Amanda Gordon or Billy Collins. That's utter nonsense. Gordon is the heir to Langston Hughes, who a century ago wrote of the dangers of a dream deferred. Her poetry moves with the grace and rhythm of music and challenges America to live up to its ideals. Shaffer’s PR machine cranks out comparisons to Collins, a risible analogy. Collins is a treasure because of his wondrous mix of humor and profundity. Collins makes you laugh, then cringe; he makes you want to suck the marrow from the smallest sublime moments because life is fleeting.


Snark is not the same thing as the depth. Shaffer is also billed as a humorist. Silly me, I thought that actual “humor” was a prerequisite for being a humorist. Shaffer’s is the look-over-the shoulder naughtiness that stops being funny about the time an adolescent boy graduates from junior high school. Consider these lines prompted by seeing a t-shirt that reads, “I Have a Pretty Granddaughter. I Also Have a Gun, a Shovel, and an Alibi.”


            I thought about telling him

            that I have a shovel, too,

            and that I was going to dig up his backyard looking for his granddaughter, because what the fuck, dude.

            What the fuck?”


Perhaps his words appeal to pop culture addicts who think that dropping a few memes and brand names confers cultural capital. In “I Read Your Chapbook” Shaffer writes,


            Oh, look, just what the world needs –

            another book from an Instagram poet

            filled with more derivative tripe

            about love, whiskey, and scars.


            Lord Byron would have drunk wine

             from your tattooed hipster skull

            while riding his pet bear

            into the House of Lords

            before making sweet, sweet love

            to his half-sister on the parliament floor.


            Really makes you wonder, though:

            When did he find the time to write?


It says it all to note this is his best work. As a poem it’s trite. It would, though, be a good standup routine.


In his (failed) efforts to write droll lines, Shaffer consistently goes for the cheap rather than transforming an inspired idea into a good poem. In “All Hands on Deck,” Shaffer discusses how numerous versifiers wrote submissions for The New Yorker after 9/11. He sets a melancholic tone that he ruins with: "Six months later, we received our rejections, our metaphors as unnecessary as another Ben Stiller movie…" This is the sort of line one utters at a party. Participants nod and give it the acknowledgment it deserves: "Good line dude.” Again, good standup material.


He does this throughout. In “Poetry Edgelord” he has an insightful moment in which he writes, “A poem is just a short story/without proper punctuation.” So why ruin it with childish references to Walt Shitman and William Turdsworth? Shaffer can’t even follow his own dictates. Later, he tries to pass off several children’s jokes about farts and witches as poems by arranging them as such. What do we wish to make of his observation after seeing the musical Hamilton:  "If Alexander Hamilton was such bomb- ass rapper, why did he ever bother with politics?" I will give Shaffer credit for at least knowing that imagining a cloud as penis-shaped deserves the title “Stupid.”


He has several repeating themes–“#SponsoredPost,” “Great Kentuckians of Kentucky,” and recurrent references to the Pittsburgh Steelers–that are so lightweight one expects them to fly away. They are akin to his “Carpe DM.” The entire offering reads: “Every day is a new/opportunity to say/”Fuck it all.” Ditto his observation in “Goodnight Moon” in which he offers this offbeat/off-color observation: “One person’s nightmare of being naked in public is another’s wet dream.”


It’s ironic that Shaffer skewers hipsters; Shaffer seeks to be one. If you don’t already hate hipsters, you will by the time you finish reading his work. Tell you what. Go ahead and preemptively hate them. I’ve saved you the trouble of reading this. Try Amanda Gordon and Billy Collins instead.


Rob Weir







Small Town Taxi Punks the Pioneer Valley


Small Town Taxi: Honey Walker Adventures Book I (2019)

By Harriet Rogers

Independently published, 317 pages.




I love Northampton, the town in which I live. It does, however, lend itself to parody, as there's a tendency for people to take themselves too seriously. That applies across the board, from college professors to construction workers. You name ‘em–feminists, musicians, LGBTQ activists, liberals, neo-cons, panhandlers, poets, social workers–when they get up a good head of steam, they can suck the oxygen out of the room. I've often dreamt of hanging a banner across Main Street with the message, “C’mon folks, lighten up.” 


I don't have to; Harriet Rogers has it done so in novel form. Small Town Taxi is the first of her Honey Walker series. It's a gentle lampoon of life in the 413 and a sendup of hard-boiled detective novels. Call it pulp fiction for the Pioneer Valley. Rogers knows her subjects well; she is the former owner of Skera Gallery. When you work downtown, you see the entire panoply of town characters.


Her protagonist, Honey Walker, was a homeless, ditzy college dropout who drifted into town when she was 21. When police Lieutenant Jon Stevens found her sleeping on a park bench, he didn’t bust her; he introduced her to the Cool Ride Cab Company. Honey took to driving her Scion XB cab like an otter takes to raw fish, even though the owner is a cheapskate and the dispatcher redefines the adjective surly. Honey lives in a small apartment–commentary on Northampton’s inflated housing market–but she's a tomboy with simple needs whose only fashion vice is shoe lust. Her take on herself is, “I am the girl who makes the phrase ‘they all look alike’ a reality,” though Stevens doesn’t think that’s true.


She's also the girl who trouble finds, an occupational hazard for a cabbie. Without giving away any of the plot, Small Town Taxi sports quite a cast: a trigger-happy lawyer, a highly educated plus-size black woman who occasionally works as a hooker, a Springfield crime family, a cookie-baking older woman who used to work for the FBI, several Keystone Kop-like hoodlums, and an assortment of hipsters, scrape-by residents, privileged moralists, and weirdos.


Rogers playfully­– if not always skillfully–satirizes testosterone-fueled writers like Mickey Spillane. She frequently resorts to stereotypes, but in order to turn the tables. For instance, it's women who are the primary horndogs; they are also the ones who are snarky and kick butt. Honey is so tough and raw that we expect her to grab her crotch and spit. The women in Rogers’ book figure things out, but usually in a bumbling fashion in order to round out her send up of detective fiction. There's plenty of colorful language and gunplay, but the body count is low.


Readers who know the area well have fun pulling away the veils that scarcely disguise real things. (Cool Rides, for example, is clearly modeled on Cosmic Cabs.) Some readers might get their dander up. Hampshire Heights, a public housing complex comes off badly, but Holyoke and Springfield even more so. Rogers is an equal opportunity satirist. Her very title is a dig. In a town nicknamed “Noho” it's hard to refute her observation that, “Northampton residents think of themselves as only one step from the Big Apple.” I laughed aloud at various places in the novel, even though some of my chuckles could be seen as self-deprecation.


At the end of the day, though, I'm not pushing the other three books to the top of my reading list. Small Town Taxi is great fun but it's also a one-trick pony, a high concept that might not be tall enough to sustain interest. This, of course, is a matter of individual taste and I’d not debate those who think “Noho” could benefit from a few more metaphorical slaps at pretense. Start with Small Town Taxi. If it makes you laugh, you might wish to hail another ride or two.


Rob Weir