Tag: Steven Yeun

Nope (2022)

Nope (2022)

Be afraid of looking in Jordan Peele’s puzzling but less enlightening horror suspense film

Director: Jordan Peele

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Otis Jnr “OJ” Haywood), Keke Palmer (Em Haywood), Steven Yeun (Ricky “Jupe” Park), Brandon Perea (Angel Torres), Michael Wincott (Antlers Holst), Wrenn Schmidt (Amber Park), Keith David (Otis Haywood Snr), Donna Mills (Bonnie Clayton)

Spoiler warning: Peele loves to keep ALL the plot details on the QT – so I discuss more than he would want, but hopefully not enough to spoil the plot.

Jordan Peele’s previous horror films brilliantly married up genuine chills with acute social commentary. Plot details have often been kept under wraps – after all half the joy of watching Get Out or Us the first time is working out what the hell is going on. Nope continues this trend, but for the first time I feel this is to the film’s detriment. I actually think Nope would be improved if you know going into it that this was Peele’s dark twist on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with added body horror). Instead, Nope plays its enigmatic cards so close to its chest that it ends up never having a hand free to punch you in the guts.

Pensive and guarded Otis Jnr (Daniel Kaluuya) – known, unfortunately, as OJ – and his exuberant wanna-be-star sister Em Haywood (Keke Palmer) are trying (with differing levels of enthusiasm) to keep their father’s Hollywood horse handling business alive after his freak death from a coin falling from the sky (everyone assumes it fell from a plane). The business is struggling, with OJ forced to frequently sell their horses to their neighbour, a former child star turned ranch theme-park owner, Ricky (Steven Yeun). Their lives are altered however when they discover a huge UFO living in a cloud near their ranch, sucking up horses (and other animals) and spitting out any inorganic remains. Seeing this as their path to fortune (and in Em’s case fame) they try and capture the UFO on film.

Nope is all about our compulsive need to look. Nothing draws our eyes like spectacle – and what could be a bigger spectacle than a huge saucer in the sky that eats people? It doesn’t matter if we know we shouldn’t, our eyes are drawn up (now imagine if Peele had been able to call the film Up!). We want to be part of the big event, whether that’s seeing the latest blockbuster at the big screen or rubber-necking at a roadside accident. Nope hammers this point home, when it becomes clear you are only at danger from the saucer when you look directly at it. Spectacle literally kills!

This is all an inversion of the mid-West America that starred at the skies in wonder in Close Encounters. There the Aliens capped the film with a glorious light show with awe and wonder from the humans watching. Here the appearance in the sky is a prelude to sucking you up, digesting you and vomiting out blood and bits of clothing a few hours later. Despite this, Ricky tries to make an entertainment show out of the creature (something he, of course, learns to regret), and OJ and Em find little reason to re-think their attempts to capture the animal on screen.

Peele’s film takes a few light shots at social media culture. Of course our heroes’ first instinct is to reach for their phones (they are looking for that “Oprah shot” that will guarantee fame and fortune). OJ at least is largely motivated by the cash influx his struggling business needs – Em wants the fame. But the film still attacks the shallow “main event-ness” of social media, where having the best and most impressive thing to show off (for a few seconds) is the be-all-and-end-all.

Peele remains too fond of these characters to judge them too harshly. But he has no worries about taking shots at the fame-and-money hungry Ricky, or a TMZ reporter who arrives at the worst possible moment and dies begging to be handed his camera so he can record the moment. Arguably Ricky would have made a more interesting lead: a man chewed up and spat out by the fame machine and angling for a second chance, who thinks he’s way smarter than he actually is.

The film opens with a chilling shot of what we eventually discover was the bloody aftermath of the disastrous final filming day of Ricky’s sitcom from his childhood-acting days, Gordy’s Home. Gordy was a chimp living with an adopted family: until the chimp actor snapped in bloody fury. It sets up a sense of danger, but the plot never quite marries it up with the main themes of Nope. Parallels are thinly drawn with Ricky’s attempt to commercialise this infamous tragedy, but it feels forced: the whole section plays like a chilling short story inserted into the main narrative. And the film never explores in detail the lesson from this bloody tragedy, that we underestimate the dangers animals can pose (despite the film being littered with creatures).

Instead, Peele settles for a stately reveal of his plot. It takes almost an hour for the film’s true purpose to become clear, but it lacks the acute and darkly funny social commentary that made his previous films so fascinating while they took their time showing you their hand. Interesting points are made about how black people are (literally) whitewashed out of Hollywood’s history (the Haywoods claim to be descended from the black jockey featured in the first ever moving film made in America). But it’s a political point that sits awkwardly in a satire (about something else!), and Peele overstretches the opening without making the central mystery compelling enough.

There are, however, fine performances from the actors, Kaluuya’s shuffling physique – slightly over-weight, the troubles of the world weighing him down – is matched with his charismatically sceptical looks. Keke Palmer is engaging and funny as his slap-dash sister, and the warm family bond between these two works really well. It never quite makes sense that someone as publicity-averse as OJ would really want to become a social media sensation, but you can let it go.

There is lots of good stuff in Nope – it’s beautifully filmed and assembled and once it lets you in on its plans, it has a strong final act. But its social commentary isn’t quite sharp or thought-provoking enough – people are shallow and love spectacle and social media, who knew – and neither the mystery or the plot are quite compelling enough. It’s told with imagination and Peele has a fascinating and unique voice: but Nope isn’t much more than a solid story well told.

Minari (2020)

A family struggle against adversity in Lee Isaac Chung’s autobiographical and heartwarming Minari

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Cast: Steven Yeun (Jacob Yi), Han Ye-ri (Monica Yi), Alan Kim (David Yi), Noel Kate Cho (Anne Yi), Youn Yuh-jung (Soon-ja), Will Patton (Paul)

Lee Isaac Chung grew up in rural Arkansas during the Reaganite 80s, when everyone felt they could live the American dream. His young life – and the experiences of his parents – from the basis of Minari, an emotionally involving, tender and quietly hopeful film about planting a future. The film is named after an obstinate Korean plant which takes root and grows where it can – a struggle the Yi family can sympathise with.

Jacob (Steven Yeun) dreams of building a family legacy, a Korean food farm that will find an eager market among Korean-Americans. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is less than keen, looking with dread at the leaky trailer house her husband has invested their savings in. Nevertheless, Jacob sets about planting with back-breaking dedication, but very little practical knowledge – all while he and Monica continuing working as chicken sorters during the day. Her concerns are not helped by the heart condition of their son David (Alan Kim) – and that they are now over an hour from a hospital. Not even the arrival of Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to provide childcare can help reduce the growing tensions in this family.

Although Minari is mostly in Korean, this is a very American tale. Jacob is a man very much trying to live the American dream, building a new business (and life) for his family. Even more American than that, he’s doing it out in the American west, working to conquer land that has beaten several farmers before him. Minari perfectly fuses together a respect for Korean heritage and culture with an inclusive view of the American ideal: that being rewarded for your hard work is something anyone can achieve.

As such Minari repackages many familiar story elements – childhood memories, a bond between an eccentric elderly relative and a child, near biblical struggles against the elements to build a farm, marital problems and fish-out-of-water set-ups – into something that feels fresh and highly engaging. Chung’s involving, carefully intimate direction is crucial to this, his connection with the material helping make it both funny and at times heart-breakingly tragic, while never allowing it to slip from being fundamentally hopeful.

Jacob’s desire to build the farm is both impressively ambitious and strangely irresponsible. Jacob wants to demonstrate his family should have faith in itself, taking immense pride in ‘Korean smart thinking’ as he finds home-made solutions to farming problems. He works with such dedication – frequently to the point of physical exhaustion – that its impossible not to admire him. But as he carries out his improvised fixes – from a well he digs that runs dry to working out how close together he can plant his produce – everything carries an edge-of-your-seat tension, as we are all too aware he’s making it up as he goes. Yeun is excellent as a man afraid of failure, driving himself to do everything he can to escape that fate, but often too blunt and proud to ask for help.

Chung isn’t afraid to demonstrate the damage this can have on a marriage. The couple frequently argue. So much that they seem to have forgotten the romantic moments in Korea that bought them together – hearing ‘their song’ playing, Jacob can’t even remember having heard it. Monica resents a farm she never wanted but feels forced to support. Han Ye-ri is wonderful, beautifully expressing a range of suppressed emotions, her face speaking volumes about her shock on first seeing their new home. The couple move between arguments and silent non-communication as the pressure of trying to make this business work – combined with supporting a family– drives a wedge between them.

Much of this is seen from their perspective of their children, in particular son David (an effectively sweet performance from Alan Kim). Fitting for a film about a director’s memories of his childhood, David is really the main character, with his perceptions and interactions with the other characters driving the narrative. He’s at an age where he is just beginning to understand some of the problems in his life, but still has the joy and sulky stroppiness of a young child.

What becomes the heart of the film is the relationship between David and his newly arrived Grandma, who he ends up sharing a room. David’s hostility to this woman – he’s furious that she’s not like an American, cookie-baking Grandma, instead being too Korean and (according to David) smelly – slowly changes, as she treats him with an honesty he doesn’t get from his tense parents. Any friendship formed over one tricking the other into drinking piss is sure to last!

The Grandma is played, in a scene-stealing performance scooping a truckful of prizes, by veteran Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung. In many ways it’s a simple part – the older family member who says outrageous things, but has a heart of gold – but Youn plays it with a quirk but also an immense sincerity that becomes genuinely moving. Unlike his parents, she encourages David to do things (like running) rather than do as little to preserve his heart. She helps him build his confidence – and finds she has more in common with this bluntly-spoken child than anyone else. In turn she gives him the attention his stressed parents are unable to. It’s not an original role, but it’s quite beautifully judged.

What is (sadly) surprising is that this Korean family finds themselves warmly welcomed into this Christian Arkansas community. I was waiting – as I am sure other viewers have – for a moment of racism or for Jacob to be exploited. Instead, the Yi family are given nothing but support from banks and the church in Arkansas (the only person who does screw the family is an unseen Korean businessman who cancels a crucial order). The family makes friends with local eccentric and Korean war veteran Paul (a jittery but charming performance by Will Patton) who, when he says he’s honoured to be invited to their home, really means it.

This warmth, of people maybe arguing and feuding but coming together and supporting each other, is a big part of what makes this film hopeful. The characters may all make huge mistakes – but they do for the very best of reasons. This is not a depressing film – which considering how much goes wrong, is a surprise. It’s a film where hard work is noble and huge disaster strikes it draws people together not apart. The minari itself is a part of that message of hope: it will grow down by the river, forge a fine crop, and survive all disasters: like family, it’s something we can always rely on.