In Minari (dir. Lee Isaac Chung), the opening film of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, a water diviner waves a stick toward the feet of Jacob (Steven Yeun), an aspiring farmer who’s uprooted his family from California for the green Arkansas acres he stands on. Jacob dismisses the diviner; why pay for something he can get for free? With his young son, he surveys his field for tell tales of trees and digs till he hits the liquid he needs to nourish his crops. Logic, not belief, will irrigate his farm.
The drama of Minari flows from how blind Jacob is to his own faith—that is, his belief in capitalism, the religion of reward for hard work. Jacob commits fully to the American dream, signing onto a bank loan (where the bank official hands Jacob’s son a Smurf-blue lollipop, sugar to take away the sting of high interest) in order to buy pricey farm equipment that arrives used and dusty. These sacrifices will pay off once he succeeds, Jacob tells his wife. Meanwhile, the two of them toil at a chick sorting centre, checking the yellow fluff for male or female signs: males are incinerated. The subtext is clear: hard work cannot save people in a capitalist economy. Their fate is determined before they crack out of the shell.
As it becomes clear which fate is Jacob’s, water morphs from saviour to tormentor. In a life already curtailed by water––that which separates Jacob, a Korean American, from his homeland––Jacob pursues the commodity but also fears it, warning his family they may need to flee by car during a harsh storm. Then his well runs dry just as his crops bloom. To save his investment, he steals water from the municipal supply, which keeps his vegetables alive but dries the taps in his ‘house on wheels’, his family’s adorable terminology for the trailer where they sleep. The centring of water as giver of good or bad fortune creates a surface illusion that Jacob’s problems are natural and inevitable, not the result of human intervention. That intervention started long before the film’s opening scene, with the American campaign for its version of capitalism that comes at the expense of nations like Korea, displacing people who are then forced to uproot themselves to survive, choosing America as their saviour. The poison of that relationship can be seen in the Mountain Dew drunk by Jacob’s family, who say it is for good health and call it ‘Mountain Water’ in Korean: E numbers float in glowing cups.
The mutually destructive forces of water and capitalism feature in another film at the Glasgow Film Festival, a collection of five dystopian shorts called Mekong 2030. Created in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, the shorts imagine future worlds in which the Mekong has dried up, flooded its boundaries, or both. The opening, Soul River (dir. Kulikar Sotho), follows the river journey of a Cambodian odd couple, a villager who stumbles across a Buddhist relic and a security guard who promises to help him get a good price for it. The men travel in rudimentary vessels along the Mekong’s muddy waters, paddling in larger and more perilous tributaries toward a bigger village, a bigger town. In a plot familiar to anyone who has followed the fall of a hedge fund, the men are undone by their own greed: their mutual suspicion and the rocking waters send the relic to the river floor. The film’s dramatisation of a clash between traditional ways of life and capitalist modernity echoes another film of a river journey, the Colombian feature The Embrace of the Serpent (2015); there, characters explore colonial inheritances and impoverishments in nightmarish, Heart of Darkness-like scenes.
Later in Mekong 2030, director Anocha Suwichakornpong presents a meta film object in ‘The Line’, in which video editors clad in minimalist COS wardrobes put the final touches on an art film: upside-down shots of the Mekong, images of dirt dissolving in digital droplets. In the film-within-a-film, a voiceover artist recites a cryptic monologue that could easily pass as poetry:
There is something I have been meaning to tell you.
I am hoping to express to you with sincerity,
But I worry that it may not sustain the weight of language.
If in the end it is inaccurate, I hope it isn’t untrue.
It has been brought to my attention that the world is filled
with an incalculable diversity of objects.
A fragile stem has begun to emerge.
Black rubber slips.
The voiceover cuts, and the film drops away to reveal the filmmakers gazing impassively at their creation––and also at the viewer. Unhappy with their product, they fiddle with the brightness and contrast, seeking, like Minari’s water diviner, to come closer to the source of truth.
April Yee is a writer and translator published in Newsweek, Ambit, and Electric Literature. A Harvard and Tin House alumna, she reported in more than a dozen countries before moving to London, where she reads for TriQuarterly and mentors for the Refugee Journalism Project at University of the Arts London.
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