After last year’s Oscars announced the “arrival” of director Lee Isaac Chung, those clever celluloid archivists at Film Movement rounded up the Korean-American filmmaker’s earlier works and released them as DVDs and on Film Movement+.
Seeing “Munyurangabo,” “Abigail Harm” and “Lucky Life” could give away the style, tropes and ensemble that Chung would call on for “Minari,” his most personal film, a drama about family, culture shock and the Korean-American immigrant experience in rural Wisconsin.
“Abigail Harm,” a modern day fairytale of romance, love and loneliness in an empty/not-entirely-empty New York, features future “Minari” co-star Will Patton as a wounded stranger who grants a lonely woman who reads to the blind (Amanda Plummer) a wish for saving him from pursuers. Patton also narrates the film in self-consciously arty voice over.
“It is when she is face to face with someone that she feels most alone.”
“Self-consciously arty” applies to the film as well. It’s a somber, downbeat and slow meditation on love and loneliness, and one can see the patient storytelling style that has become Chung’s trademark on this 2012 release.
We meet Abigail as she goes about her routine, making visits to blind clients, reading from books and newspapers and sorting through their mail, if they so desire.
The picture’s tone is set in its abrupt but quiet open. Abigail reads aloud a long passage from “Alice in Wonderland.”
Burt Young plays a tetchier “new client” who insults her voices and barks/pleads, “Left to right, OK? Left to right” about how he wants to experience his daily newspaper.
Abigail is also fielding calls from the nursing home where her father is “always going in and out.” She won’t be browbeaten into another “emergency” visit.
“It has nothing to do with how much I love him or don’t love him.”
She walks through the seemingly empty city, wandering abandoned apartment buildings or along disused piers. Abigail “spends her days never being seen by anyone,” our narrator admits, a play on the fact that there is no one in the streets, and her clients can’t see.
And then the narrator shows himself. He’s got a gash in his gut, he’s manic and somewhat panicked. And he pleads “Please, hide me!”
When she does, and when the danger has passed, this disheveled stranger prattles on and on about this and that in rushed stream of consciousness whisper. He wants to repay her, and cash won’t do.
“Have you ever been in love? I can arrange it.”
And that’s how, on one of her daily rambles, she stumbles across the naked, silent young Japanese man (Tetsuo Kuramochi). Abigail drapes a wrap over him, takes him home and proceeds to feed him and talk to this silent stranger, beaming all the while.
What Chung and co-writer Samuel Gray Anderson give us is a truncated relationship, the highs, lows and abrupt breaks and make-ups of a love affair, much of it with only one character talking.
It’s freighted with slender, sometimes obvious metaphors, and whispered about via narration.
“Abigail Harm” is somewhat pretentious and entirely too slow and self-conscious to be of more than passing interest to a casual film fan. And even the cognoscenti might find the labor to plumb its meaning spoils any joy that could spin out of another Amanda Plummer eccentric.
Of the three features Chung made leading up to “Minari,” this is by far the dullest. Munyurangabo” was a fascinating and ambitious debut, but the films — years apart — that followed were internalized bores, lacking incident or much in the way of dramatic tension or novelty — “film festival movies” that could only exist in the rarified air of film fanatic gatherings.
Perhaps that’s why film festival goers were so bowled over by “Minari,” as it has far more incident, drama and pathos than his earlier films. It’s Chung’s great leap forward. Watch “Abigail Harm” only if you want to see how far he had to leap.
Rating: unrated, nudity, sex
Cast: Amanda Plummer, Tetsuo Kuramochi, Burt Young and Will Patton.
Credits: Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, scripted by Samuel Gray Anderson and Lee Isaac Chung. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:20