Movie Review: Lee Isaac Chung’s pre-“Minari” drama — “Lucky Life”

Before his Oscar nominated indie hit “Minari,” Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung put in his years of making thoughtful, micro-budget indies that played the festival circuit and rarely made much of an impression beyond that.

The streaming/DVD service Film Movement has taken the trouble to acquire the trio — “Abigail
Harm,” “Munyurangabo” and “Lucky Life” — for belated but informative release, giving us the chance to chart the University of Utah alum’s progress up the movie making mountain.

“Lucky Life,” his second feature, is a contemplative, understated drama “based on the poetry of Gerald Stern.” It takes its title from a Stern collection, which Mark (Daniel O’Keefe, who hasn’t made a movie since) narrates from and occasionally reads from to his new wife, Karen (Megan McKenna, whose only other film credit is “Booty Cakes”).

“Dear waves,” Mark reads, “What will you do for me today? Will you drown out my scream? Will you steer me through the fog?”

An apt poem to quote if you’re turning in a seriously conventional “beach house reunion” tale.

Mark and Karen join their friend Alex (Richard Harvell) for the long drive from Brooklyn to North Carolina’s serene and still somewhat uncrowded Outer Banks. Their friend Jason has gotten some bad news, and is in the “quality of life” stage of his cancer. They’re traveling down to say goodbye, for “probably the last time we’ll have together.”

The Christian subtext that is evident in “Minari” turns up here, with the friends talking about praying for Jason, a familiar clerk at a local shop chiming in and Jason himself hitting his knees on one occasion.

The dinner conversation turns from Mark questioned about getting an agent who is pitching his first book, a hint that Mark and Karen are trying to get pregnant and Jason serio-comically complaining that “It’s so sick that people call me because they think that it’s the last time they’ll talk to me.”

There are candlelit ghost stories that wouldn’t pass muster on a Boy Scout campout, subdued beach frolics and “a trip to Ocracoke,” the touristy island only reachable by ferry.

Mark narrates from a poem — “I like to think of floating again in my first home (the womb),” voices are never raised, tragedies occur mostly off camera, the time frame shifts here and there and dinner is served, much later.

And that’s all there is to it. As I said, it’s the epitome of a quiet, thoughtful “film festival” movie.

“Minari” was a worthwhile film that gained added notoriety in a many-titles-delayed/lockdown-COVID year. I thought it good, a heartfelt and in some ways novel take on The American Immigrant Experience, but breathlessly over-praised.

But the fun for a film buff in watching the movies that led up to Chung’s Oscar nominated (it won a Best Supporting Actress honor for Youn Yuh-jung) is seeing a young (he was 30ish when he filmed “Lucky Life”) filmmaker finding his voice, the “same nail” that an artist pounds, over and over, and the lessons Chung learned along the way.

“Lucky Life” lacks the incidents that comprise good drama. It’s so subdued and internalized as to be boring.

The performances are competent, but pitched at a near whisper, and thus come off dull.

There have been stories about AIDS victims, the newly-widowed and the dead-and-dying summoning friends or family for “one last weekend” in the country, at the manor house or on the beach, and “Lucky Life” isn’t a standout of the genre by any means. I thought “Minari” similarly drew on its many predecessors in its subgenre, with enough incidents and colorful characters to make it stand-out.

“Lucky Life” wasn’t so lucky. It’s a classic “film festival” phenomenon, a movie that cinephiles see and give extra attention to simply by virtue of its curated inclusion in “the festival.” The buzz around it is all the more upbeat because of the fest circuit bubble it lives and dies in.

It taught Chung to work his way towards more accomplished actors, people who bring more to a script than they take from it. And he seems to have gotten the hint that basing a movie on poems is a good way to never make it out of “the festival circuit.”

Rating: PG

Cast: Daniel O’Keefe, Megan McKenna, Kenyon Adams, Richard Harvell

Credits: Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, scripted by Samuel Gray Anderson and Lee Isaac Chung, based on the poems of Gerald Stern. A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:37

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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