Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 16.4: Film as Metaphor, Myth, Virtual Reality and Stepping Stone from Dismemberment to Belonging

by Ravi Chandra, M.D.
August 27, 2021

As I relate to my patients, my friends, our communities, nations and world, in compassion and distress, I find myself dismembered. Shattered, even. Haiti, subject to so much trauma, has been leveled by another earthquake. Fire “season” reminds us that our season on Earth is fragile. America’s 20-year “adventure” in Afghanistan is ending. Kabul has fallen, evacuation of the vulnerable in progress – and failure. Afghanistan, like Vietnam in 1975, is both celebrating the throwing off of colonialist, invader yoke and mourning human and humanitarian loss. 9-11 should have been a criminal case, but instead was used as casus belli, all because of a 5-4 decision of our Supreme Court and what still stands as a stolen election, prelude to the repetition compulsion of war, our national pastime. History has repeated itself. Already, the talking heads spout what-ifs and should-have-beens and blame-games which mirror precisely arguments that started 60 years ago in Vietnam, and are still being fought. Are our brains simply an extravagant (Twitter or Facebook) beef? No one asks why Big Countries launch missiles at mosquitoes. No one works to defuse triggers located between earlobes. No one stops the hand from pouring salt on the wound. Will we hear the cries for refuge? How many will die with cries unheard? How much cotton will we push into our ears? How much wool over our eyes? How many gaslights will we allow to substitute for enlightenment? When will we decide the Greatest Game is played in hearts, not wars? I stand, in mournful solidarity, with my shattered friends: refugees, migrants, descendants of violence, slavery, genocide, incarceration, relocation, and all that has fallen short of love and care, but has brought us here, to this moment, together, where we might look forward and back; choose a different path. May our reality someday match our better angels, and may we gather ourselves, for the road ahead. This essay charts the psychological impact of trauma, but also connects to the ways film can offer us a virtual healing engagement of mind/heart by focusing on relational and emotional journeys. Spotlighting Netflix series MIDNIGHT DINER, NEVER HAVE I EVER, and KIM’S CONVENIENCE, and films HAPPY CLEANERS, MINARI and 1974’s CLAUDINE, with a look at the problematic Moynihan report on the Black family.

 

Still from Claudine (1974)

A friend once quoted a bit of wisdom: “It is more important to understand than to be understood.” I shrugged my shoulders and filed his words away. These words came from the mouth of someone who often professed to understand quite a lot, but whom I’d found in practice to be more assertive than understanding. “Take two aphorisms and call me in the morning.” There was a lot he didn’t get, particularly about relationship. Particularly about me. He probably thought there was a lot I didn’t understand about him and the world as well, and that would have been correct. We’re all works-in-progress, grokking and trying to be grokked. Like many (nearly all?) people who’ve gone through hard times, though, I have been met at key turning points in my life with avoidance, dismissal, marginalization, and judgment, not compassion and understanding. I got by with a little help from my friends.

But again – is it more important to understand than to be understood? Yes and no, yes and no.

Mostly – no.

“But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good/Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

It’s quite dangerous to not be understood, to be mislabeled, stereotyped, pegged, blamed, othered. Over 600,000 U.S. dead from COVID, with a disproportionate number in BIPOC communities, including Pacific Islanders. 9000+ hate incidents against Asian Americans reported since March 2020, with over a quarter of those occurring from April to June 2021, all on top of a long American history of scapegoating and attacking Asians and Asian Americans, especially during international or economic distress. Two mass shootings affecting Asian Americans since March 16th. At least a dozen murders, by my count, since December, 2020. Consequential sequelae of calculated, strategic, misanthropic, systematic, programmatic misunderstanding, a misunderstanding that insists on our dehumanization, disempowerment, devaluation, and objectification. We live in a culture that resists us, defensively, reflexively, cruelly.

It has to stop. I demand understanding. I insist on my humanity. I affirm it, even as the machine seeks to negate it. I will clog this distorting, mangling machine with my very self until it breaks, until I am free, until we all are free.

Nothing personal, though. The machine is made of mangled, broken parts itself. A mangled, broken country. A mangled, broken world.

We must be understood. But what do I understand? That all our needs, basic and advanced, are dependency needs, including our need for understanding, synonymous with our need for love.

We must be understood. We must be loved.

Thinking, feeling and understanding are not separate. They are complementary. They arise together, from relatedness, and must be married. Power-based dominant culture, including the delusion of White Supremacy, insists on their separation, especially in marginalized and subordinated communities.

***

There are parts of me that still scream to be known. Parts of me that were misunderstood, judged, left for dead, and are still awaiting resurrection. They are not destroyed. They still circulate, in hot blood, beaten out by my defeated, beaten yet unbeaten, defiant heart.

A key outcome of trauma is alienation, both interpersonal and intrapersonal, the private splitting off of experience into a memory, an experience of self, that is at best shared only between the people involved, but which is usually just borne by the recipient of injury. I was the only one really there, after all, in my fullness. The only part of them present was callous misunderstanding, shallow judgment and the showy brandishing of their weight against my frail flesh, bones, and mind.

Is there any other part of them? This I do not know, this I am still struggling to understand.

Adobe stock image by fotomaximum, licensed by Ravi Chandra

Also: Were there bystanders who could have, but did not, intervene? Who were aware, but chose to shrug? Are those bystanders steadying themselves now, to finally say “NO!” to abuse, to all the abuse? Or have they succumbed to the perceived inevitability of psychological and physical violence, of abuse, of disempowerment, of estrangement, of ostracism? The inevitability of the fist and gun, the gulag, the stateless, the refugee, the vanquished, the broken, the unrepaired, the unrepairable, the forgotten, the forgettable? Do they walk with calm, reptilian rationalizations, because, to contradict Kermit, it turns out it is easier being green?

Is abuse, historical and personal, some kind of necessary crucible for awareness? I don’t know, but it’s the crucible we are in. I have survived, and I am aware, with necessary, raging embers.

Kindling.

Life.

Because we are lost, but then found, in proximity to suffering.

My injurers have grown silent, or rest on their golden laurels as the more powerful and capable of inflicting harm, the self-proclaimed authors of my experience, even as I reject their authority and struggle to write myself, to right myself, to crack the delusion of their might and bring light. Or die trying.

I have been dismembered, and it hurts to remember. I understand, and I want to be understood.

***

Legend has it that the Egyptian god Osiris was murdered and dismembered by Set, his rival. Osiris’s queen, the goddess Isis, gathers his body parts and makes him whole again. They conceive a child, Horus, who avenges his father and restores the kingdom. The healing journey of the feminine, in relatedness, restores life and brings forth new life, but the masculine journey lies solely in battle to establish a new order. Horus, the son, is the offspring of trauma and must come to his own power. The myth also describes a passage through violence and expresses the hope of resolution and triumph through the agency of those who adhere to their known, common truth, identities, and purpose. Osiris, Isis and Horus never give up.

Adobe stock image by vgorbash, licensed by Ravi Chandra. Isis is the goddess of life and magic, protector of women and children, healer of the sick.

Trauma has been described as a shattering of the self. Like Osiris, the traumatized person must be gathered, through remembering and creating a new experience in the present. They must create a new relationship to memory and to life. The traumatized person must conceive a new self, and a new way of being in a world that has produced their dismemberment. They must bear a child of the mind/heart to carry their journey forward. Most of all, they must know they are not alone, that they have allies in this struggle to restore themselves or even to challenge the traumatizing ways of the world, their struggle to restore others who have similarly been shattered.

Immolated, even.

The injuries of abuse, power, contempt, control, subordination, marginalization, ignorant and knowing cruelty – are carried like invisible torches, capable of turning consciousness into a raging inferno at the slightest hint of oxygen. The awareness that one is not safe, that people are not safe and free from danger, is an ear, a fiery ear, to the ground of reality.

My job is literally to keep my ear to this ground, flames and all.

I have burned. I am still burning.

The world is burning.

I have learned to be my own ally, and to send my allyship back in time to hold, love, and accept all parts of myself that have been harmed by selfish power committed to misanthropy, misunderstanding, and cowardice in the face of sincere struggle for compassion and equality.

The scabs of historical and personal traumas have been ripped from us in recent years, and trauma is alive. It has not been silenced or buried. It is singing, screaming, burning. It is not dead, it never was. It is alive, and it is life. The Buddha was right. Life is hard, painful. Life is anguishing, ravishing, angering. Filled with sorrow, grief, loss, and some occasional wide fields of joy and possibility. What do we do with it? How to even gather ourselves for the road ahead?

The practice of mindfulness is called sati, or remembrance. Remembrance has been my most constant teacher. It gathers me, sometimes around the bonfires of anger and loss.

This year, I’ve been asking myself in meditation: “from where does safety come?”

Canva image, words by Ravi Chandra

Asian Americans have become more acutely aware of the possibility of violence during the pandemic, though if we were to be honest, many of us have carried at the very least a nebulous awareness of danger most of our lives. It’s that dark matter that we don’t talk about. All too often, we prize control of emotion over emotional understanding. We confuse control of emotion with power. Powerful people deny the emotional contours of our lives. We let them, because we fear their power more than we value our truth.

We avoid. We suppress. We repress. We make do. We think it was just us, that nobody cares because it was just us.

We flee towards an American Dream that they say is about reinvention, but more often is about prevention. Prevention of our identities, our own dreams, our relatedness, in favor of corporal and corporate Whiteness and dollar-bill-greenness. We do our best to create some kind of quantifiable safety. A face. The best of us turn the awareness of danger into a life mission to make the world a safer place, and not just a place to accumulate the illusion of personal safety with wealth, status, achievements or possessions.

Make no bones about it – being wealthier, living in more affluent neighborhoods – does in fact offer a tangible, concrete safety. But I’m always aware that living in an elite bubble comes at the expense of other bubbles. And the bubbles are not just becoming porous, they are exploding. Climate change, COVID, racial injustice, global inequity, international conflict, threats to human rights, threats to democracy – affect us all.

As Hiroshima and Ray Charles sang, “None of us are free if one of us is chained.” We may not like it, but it is true. Being comfortable with or inured to someone else’s chains, their suffering, their distress – keeps us all shackled. Becoming inured can harden us into the metal that keeps us all bound.

Avoidance and denial of suffering is dismembering. We must remember. We cannot let the late pandemic fog and amnestic American optimism and a “return to normalcy” – malignant normality – obscure the reality of what we’ve learned on our sojourn in time.

We are not yet safe. America is not quite set up to be a nonviolent country safe for diverse identities, nor is the world. And here we are.

In this web of interconnected historical and personal trauma, and sometimes healing, where does safety come from? Isn’t safety just as unalienable a right as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Can we create it? Can we expand it?

I hope so, but we can’t do so without making others feel safe as well. And that can only come from understanding and being understood. If we all cultivated a deep awareness of our vulnerability, interdependence and common humanity, the world would be safe, because we would know what has to be done. We would know the limits of our weight against others, and the necessity of our weight of support, affirmation, and understanding.

And whatever metal we’ve gathered as shackle in our collective consciousness, as disappointment, as frustration, as nihilistic avoidance of our commitments to one another – this metal must melt. Rumi described melting best:

“A candle as it diminishes explains
Gathering more and more is not the way.
Burn, become light and heat. Melt.”

Adobe stock image by waraphot, licensed by Ravi Chandra

***

Film melts me.

Film regularly melts me into knowing, because ideally, it comes from a place of knowing. Film, at its best, is not just entertainment, but a transmission of empathy, understanding, and relatedness, like all art. Back in 2019, I gave lectures on Asian American psychology and said, “if only we as Asian Americans had as much love for each other as filmmakers showed in their films, we would overcome. I referred to Lulu Wang for THE FAREWELL, and Jon Chu for CRAZY RICH ASIANS, both films on our cultural radar at that time, but I could add many more. I have been understanding and cherishing Asian America for a long time. As I wrote in my previous article for East Wind (MOSF 16.3), Asian America is a relational persuasion, not purely political or economic. This fact can make it seem an impossible undertaking, because relationship both is and isn’t the easiest task. I have been relating, as best I can. Freeloading off the relating of filmmakers, and then freewriting.

Film can be purely escape and entertainment. This year, it’s especially taken on the quality of filling in a relational void, and convening our synapses, attentions and identities from a place of loss, fragmentation and dismemberment. Film has amplified awareness of what’s most precious in our real life “movie,” though it seems like we’ve hardly chosen our roles on that set.

I soaked up 30 episodes and two Blu-Ray movies of MIDNIGHT DINER earlier this year, and binged the final season of KIM’S CONVENIENCE when it dropped. I’ve just finished binging Season 2 of Mindy Kaling’s NEVER HAVE I EVER. These shows were gathering, collective experiences made especially necessary by our disjointed COVID times.

Master, inside his Midnight Diner

MIDNIGHT DINER is a snug hole-in-the-wall on a pedestrian back alley in Tokyo, seating at most a dozen, open only from midnight to 7 am. The chef (whom everyone calls “Master”, played by Kaoru Kobayashi; see footnote about his title) has only one item on the menu (a pork soup combo), but will make anything the customer wants, as long as he has the ingredients, or the customer brings them. Wouldn’t it be great if life (or God or Buddha, I suppose) were like this? That’s the charm, and it is almost supernatural. The MIDNIGHT DINER is a place where you can get sustenance, nutritionally, relationally, and ultimately, spiritually. Each episode of the series revolves around a dish, a customer or customers and the ensemble regulars, who include a trio of lonely and nattering, often judgmental, but endearing, ochazuke sisters (Risa Sudo, Asako Kobayashi and Nahoko Yoshimito); a couple of yakuza, one of them, played by Yutaka Matsushige, Zennishly stoic and carrying a caring, battle-hardened heart; a strip club dancer, Marilyn-chan (Tamae Ando); and an old man, Mr. Chu (Mansaku Fuwa) who is hungry and a bit horny (he frequents the strip club and does a bit of leering now-and-again), but always cheery, safe and steady. The Master is gentle, knowing, and accepting. He creates the emotional and physical space for all his patrons’ journeys of relatedness. Over time, one feels one could be any of these characters. Judgments melt, as spaciousness, warmth and generous acceptance grow. Master sees the humanity, and need, in all. He keeps his own need in check, out of service to the shared needs for sustenance. He is not a rolling stone. He gathers moss, as do his customers.

I described MIDNIGHT DINER as a nostalgic, wistful and often sad Japanese version of CHEERS, where everybody knows your name, and you are known, understood, and fed. It is also an encapsulation of Japan’s cultural-Zen aesthetic, in which subtle emotions and depth are prized, in stark contrast to mainstream Hollywood’s in-your-face blockbuster addiction devoid of subtlety, which is not unlinked to the West’s penchant for shooting missiles at mosquitoes. At least the “Good Guys” win in a Hollywood movie, and occasionally important questions and myths are explored, as in THE MATRIX, BLADERUNNER, and STAR WARS. Perhaps SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS will be the crossover antidote between these traditions. Will report back soon.

MIDNIGHT DINER is triste and tasty, and flavored throughout with mono no aware, a gentle awareness of loss, fragility, impermanence and the importance of presence and attention, receiving and being received. When I first started watching it, I was bothered by the clearly subordinated roles of women, but realized the series was portraying a slice of reality, not trying to judge or fix it, per se. Familiarity with this floating world of quirky misfits and strugglers, the troubles of women – and men, and trans – helps us understand what we still haven’t worked out, and what works even when things aren’t quite worked out. A meal, a conversation, an awareness of depth beyond the façade that society might judge as inferior or marginal. MIDNIGHT DINER is a safe place to remember again what it’s like to be with your friends, where you can just be yourself, no work to be done, other than cultivating the precious art of hanging out.

This summer, I briefly entertained opening a Midnight Diner myself, to really become an MD, through and through. “Too much hassle,” I finally decided. Can I make one in my mind? Working on it. Maybe every place and moment can’t be a Midnight Diner, but there should be more of them.

One episode that really stood out for me was “Chicken Fried Rice” (Season 2:Episode 1). (Slight spoiler in this paragraph.) My favorite viewing experiences are epic reunions and scenes of children eating. This episode got right to the core of me, featuring a reunion of son and mother, and the nostalgia of his favorite childhood dish, around which his memory collects. In the opening scene, a mechanical toy horse circles a post while onlookers say, “it’s just walking the same spot again and again…like our life.” Don’t we all circle our origins – our mothers, fathers, families and friends – this way? Relationships begin, and I’m not sure they ever really end, except perhaps in distant, ghostly orbit. It always pays to be prepared for the reunion, though. Maybe a few meals at the Midnight Diner can help get us there, while we wait for the all-clear from COVID and ponder melting away our GAD and SAD (Generalized and Specific Avoidance Disorders).

Perhaps, someday, the superheroes – and villains – of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will show up at Master’s Midnight Diner for some chicken fried rice and ochazuke (and masala dosa and aushak, if ingredients are available). Maybe their wars and ours are just arguments on “Spacebook,” if you will, and everyone’s just really hangry.

***

KIM’S CONVENIENCE was a funny-bone tickling discovery in early pandemic, and Season 5 did end up bringing me a familiar lift during mid-stage pandemic, though I found myself more troubled by the elements that didn’t quite feel right – that were “overly White” so to speak. Even the Kim family seemed less Korean Canadian and perhaps less familiar with each other than they did when I watched the first four seasons a year earlier. Was that because later-stage pandemic made me crave authenticity more than comedy? Was I less willing to give a ‘bye’ to elements which had been inauthentic to begin with? Or had there been a shift in the writers’ room? I don’t know. Actors Simu Liu and Jean Yoon had recently been public about struggles with the writer’s room throughout the series. Maybe that colored my feelings. If my peeps aren’t happy, then I’m not happy. Still, I laughed enough through much of Season 5, and was really glad to see familiar faces, relating, sans physical masks if not sans identity-distorting double-consciousness. But I didn’t quite melt the way I wanted.

Mindy Kaling’s NEVER HAVE I EVER went the opposite direction for me. I did enjoy the first season – it was really fantastic to see a show centered on a South Asian American teenage girl, Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). And she did have a crush on a hapa guy. OK, well a six-pack-hottie hapa guy – but uh … you gotta start somewhere, right? Right?See my next novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching Guy.” Paxton Hall-Yoshida and Devi Vishwakumar are the gateway drugs to the inclusive romance we all need.

Paxton and Devi in NEVER HAVE I EVER

But there were significant moments in Season 1 where the humor and plot just landed wrong. Episode 4 was super-cringey when a Hindu woman, Jaya, reveals she was ostracized for marrying a Muslim man, and the moral of her story seemed to be “stay within the lines.” Surely we could have done better in 2020.

The second season, though, was transformative. The writers’ room, directors and producers seem to have gotten the message. Devi and the other characters are seen in their full complexity, with much greater depth than Season 1, and the struggle is real. Their struggles for identity, belonging, mental health, friendship and identity are gripping – subversively so. Devi’s relationship with the new Indian American girl at her school, Aneesa Qureshi (Megan Suri) takes center stage, and Devi openly struggles through jealousy and competition born of loss, insecurity and teenage angst to attain a new level of relatedness with herself and others.

Story. Of. Our. Lives.

Other characters also attain depth. Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) follows his feelings to find rootedness in his Japanese American identity. Eleanor (Ramona Young) disentangles herself from a co-dependent relationship with her narcissistic crush. Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) finds her way to being popular, queer – and a budding roboticist nerd. Widowed mom Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) explores desire in the wake of loss with her cocky but ultimately kind colleague Dr. Jackson (played by rapper Common). And Niecy Nash keeps it real as probably the best and most entertaining shrink in media since Robin Williams in GOOD WILL HUNTING. Or Amy Hill in WHITE FROG, who flosses her teeth mid-session while dispensing toothy – I mean pithy – insights.

“NEVER HAVE I EVER … been validated as a whole person until now” – is the vibe of Season 2. Most centrally, this validation is a collective, interdependent activity. Everyone is seeing and understanding each other here, and nudging each other towards conscience, accountability, and even transcendence. Everyone is calling each other in. The journey is shared, and as I said, the struggle is real. My only quibble is the lack of socio-economic diversity, and the portrayal of teens in intensely conversational relationship. My sense is that social media, smartphones and the re-segregation of schools and society have actually made these more difficult for many teens.

Let’s all go back to high school, right? Right? Well…maybe not. But we all need good doses of committed relationship throughout our lives, whether in a MIDNIGHT DINER or our own Sherman Oaks High School.

***

I might be accused of leaning too far into the “feel good” school of life and film. I saw a horrifically brutal Chinese independent film at SFFILM that ended with a disgruntled miner blowing up his employer’s mine. It was horrific, nihilistic, and understandable. On the way out, I said to a fellow moviegoer, “well that wasn’t exactly daffodils and rainbows.” She looked at me with all-too-much gravitas and said, darkly, “I don’t need that.”

I guess we need every corner of our psychic and corporeal reality mirrored. I go to some pretty dark places myself, and I appreciate a director taking me there sometimes, but I really appreciate a round trip ticket when I can get it.

Poster for HAPPY CLEANERS

HAPPY CLEANERS is a solid round-trip, set in the mine-shaft of immigrant experience, with a Korean American family our canary, singing a song of survival from darkness to light. It was a stand-out experience for me at CAAMFest 2019, and was recently released to streaming platforms and DVD. The writers and directors created this film by simply gathering and sharing all their traumatic experiences as children of working-class immigrants. All journeys begin with a wound, at the very least a separation. When we as travelers, migrants all, become aware of the journey and the loss, we make medicine.

I wrote, in MOSF 14.9: Family as Metaphor, Family as Reality:

HAPPY CLEANERS is ripped from these hippocampal headlines of the filmmakers’ own lives, and from these headlines, they create a heart-wrenchingly real mise en scène that takes us to the meaning, misery and understated, quiet triumph of a family of immigrants and the children of immigrants, whose members, at the end of the day, only really have each other, for better and worse… Directors Julian Kim and Peter Lee filmed in Kat Kim’s neighborhood in Flushing, New York, where she grew up and still lives, and used Julian’s uncle’s dry-cleaning shop. Hyang-Wa Lim was their choice for the family’s mother. She was a stage star in Korea in her 20s, but she was forced to abandon her acting career when she married into a conservative family. HAPPY CLEANERS marks her screen comeback, 30+ years later, and she utterly embodies her role as matriarch and Queen of Critiques, laying into her son Danny (Yun Jeong) for dropping out of school in pursuit of hazy food-truck dreams, her daughter Hyunny (Yeena Sung) for her long-term relationship with a down-on-his-luck boyfriend (Donald Chang), and her husband (Charles Ryu) for being, basically, the inaugural cause of her ongoing suffering. Jaehee Wilder provides a balancing note with her grandmotherly love and calm acceptance. Mother-in-laws are not always fearsome. Ryu, a Methodist minister who took acting classes to improve his sermons, fell into his first acting gig in the short film TAXI. Here, he makes deep pain palpable in utter silence, as he processes his screen wife’s denouncing him and her choice to marry him, in warning to Hyunny to make a better selection. Ryu also channels pain as his son berates him for not making more of himself. Ryu said in the Q and A that he said similar words to his own father at that age; recollecting that moment sounds almost shattering; but like a true method actor, he channeled that moment into preparing for his scenes, doubling over from the gut-punch of that trauma. There must be a special school of Korean American method acting – is it called ‘life’? All these exceptional actors made me believe their onscreen predicament, conflict, and striving for something better. And together, they create something more than any of their individual stories alone. That’s family as I like it.

The immigrant’s struggle for survival. The unspoken flight from trauma in “old country” and “old family.” The fear of the rug being pulled out from underneath, the trap door opening in the stage floor. The internal and interpersonal anguishes and resentments carried because of scarcity and a hard-scrabble existence. The necessity of understanding and companionship, and living in their dearth. The necessity of family. Tenuousness. Precarity. Tenacity. HAPPY CLEANERS had all of these, an indie gem worth visiting and revisiting, many times. It’s not daffodils and rainbows – life isn’t that, after all – but it is mud and lotus. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “no mud, no lotus.” Remembrance and relatedness are sun, water and bloom.

***

The gorgeous Diahann Carroll was nominated for an Oscar for her namesake role in CLAUDINE, starring alongside a brawny, handsome James Earl Jones. If HAPPY CLEANERS is a story of the gravitational force of familial love amidst the hardships and privations of immigrant life, CLAUDINE (streaming for free on Vimeo) offers a parallel gravity amidst the privations of inner-city Black life. Claudine is 36, has six children from two prior marriages and other relationships, is on welfare, and has a side gig as a maid to a suburban White household to scrape a few extra bucks. She has to keep this job and her new beau, Rupert (Jones) hidden from the nosy welfare lady whose aim is to subtract dimes and dollars from her check, and judge her and her life as “fraud” when possible. Claudine, Claudine’s children, and Rupert are all struggling for the dignity of being understood by a society intent on casting them as “bad” or “undesirable” – is it any wonder that desire and love, in all their forms, are a welcome refuge? Claudine, Rupert and Claudine’s eldest daughter seem to ask “can’t I have freedom in this one thing, with my own body?” while Claudine’s oldest son sees sexual intimacy and potential parenthood as a trap on the path to racial justice and true freedom. The ending of the movie amplifies this dichotomy, as we see the entire group walking arm in arm, but only after Claudine and Rupert’s wedding is crashed by police.

When will we have freedom – and strength – to love, against the forces of power that alienate us?

Claudine’s love for – and anguish over – her children shines throughout, a blazing light despite the challenges of their surroundings. Every day is an immigration into unwelcoming territory. Midway through the movie, three of her girls fall asleep next to her in bed. Later, she beats her oldest daughter when she finds out she is pregnant, an unwelcome reminder of her own life struggle. Humanity, hardship and sentiment shine light on lived Black experience in 1974. CLAUDINE might best be seen as a necessary cinematic antidote to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report titled “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action” which stated:

“The fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of family structure. The evidence – not final, but powerfully persuasive – is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. A middle class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated. There are indications that the situation may have been arrested in the past few years, but the general post war trend is unmistakable. So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself…A national effort is required that will give a unity of purpose to the many activities of the Federal government in this area, directed to a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.”

Moynihan posited that Black families were “disorganized” and “deteriorated,” and that this condition was the “fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.” Needless to say, a White man commenting on the Black community’s family structure is bound to be skewed and filtered through his bias of “what’s best:” the male-headed nuclear family. Strikingly, his patriarchal, male-centric, and essentially anti-Black-male assumptions were accepted by some prominent Black scholars and leaders at the time, though he was soon criticized by other Black and feminist pathmakers. Moynihan’s bias did not even see the reality of many White families either. He essentially denounced families headed by Black women, and superficially called out “absent fathers” without acknowledging the complex arrangements between parents that exist and can work, given the right societal attitude towards difference. Regardless of what produced different family structures for Black (and indeed, many White and immigrant families as well, including my own), one could imagine societal interventions and modifications that would understand and support those alternative family structures. Moynihan’s report, however, essentially blames these distressed and alternative family structures for worse socioeconomic outcomes.

And oh, by the way, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, it ain’t the families, it’s what the families face.

Still from Claudine (1974)

In other words, Black families in the 60s and 70s probably needed a Midnight Diner approach (let’s make you what you want, based on the ingredients we have or you bring), rather than a condescending “let’s make you what we want” or “you make do with whatever we have left over to give you” approach. I mean, did Moynihan even ask Black families or communities what they wanted? Did he try to understand their goals, or listen to their needs? Or was this another case of a designated expert, talking to other designated experts, thinking in expert-algorithmese, leading to no substantial innovation or clear thinking?

Moynihan’s argument also gives credence to the then-emerging Model Minority Myth as well, which has always been used against other minorities to further stratify and misunderstand complex realities:

“A number of immigrant groups were characterized by unusually strong family bonds; these groups have characteristically progressed more rapidly than others.”

Moynihan claimed that the Black community’s incomes and outcomes falter on the so-called “broken home.” CLAUDINE suggests that incomes and outcomes are NOOP: Not Our Only Problem. What are Claudine, Rupert and the children’s problems? Mainly not being hassled by cops or The System. Being given a shot at a better living and a better life. Finding some way to love and be loved. And being understood for who they are.

On that last point, Claudine’s young son Francis provides deep insight. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” a charmingly paternal Rupert asks. “Invisible,” he replies. Invisibility is his superpower of escape and safety. He mock-draws a future home in the country with a mommy and daddy. “Where are they?” Rupert asks, looking at the blank page. “Invisible,” is the answer. Invisibility of the future is here implausibility of that future, or a way to hide from the forces that destroy futures.

Francis needs to be seen.

And not simply, as Moynihan saw him, as a future successful or failed income-earner and head of household – but as a whole yet vulnerable child, with a wide, even totipotential, possibility.

His future needs to be more than an undrawable design on a White canvas.

CLAUDINE’s soundtrack, featuring Gladys Knight and the Pips, is a great listen.

***

The first two times I watched MINARI, in February and March of this year, I felt lost mid-movie. It wasn’t because of the film, but because of what – or rather who – I was missing around my viewing experience. I hadn’t seen many of my Korean American and other Asian American friends in over a year, and I was missing them. Oscar-nominated star Steven Yeun explained in an interview in the New York Times that “ Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you,” a line which resonated across my social networks.

Koreans have a term, jeong, or interdependence: just as the mind is not separate from the body, so the self is not separate from other selves. And yet our experience in America is one of connection then frustrated separation from other like-selves, a specific kind of loneliness and loss which critic David L. Eng and psychoanalyst Shinhee Han have called “racial dissociation, racial melancholia.” I have experienced multiple, recursive rounds of abandonment, betrayal, discrimination and belonging over my journey in America, in familial and communal experiences.

It gets better, I think.

MINARI similarly showcases intimacy alternating with tragedy, leaving its characters, and we as viewers, constructing meaning from the duality. We are successively hollowed out into dire ache, and then filled to subtle and more deeply related bloom.

I’ve described the combination of both of these journeys, of abandonment and belonging, and of achievement and failure, as “flipping the han-burger” – where han is the Korean term for the bitterness, resentment and connection engendered by shared oppression and suffering. I think we have an Asian American han, and even an American and global han – and at least in my experience, the han-burger needs to get flipped many times till we’re fully cooked.

Steven Yeun flipping han-burgers and han-kabobs at the grill of The Walking Fed. (From Pinterest)

I’m still quite raw and bloody on at least one side, the abandoned, dismembered, misunderstood, ghosted side. The flip side is brown, down and juicy, quite ready to feed the team. I’m quite a meal, but I’m being hella grilled y’all.

The director and writer Lee Isaac Chung, child of Korean immigrants who became farmers in Arkansas, almost went to medical school himself, but instead pursued filmmaking. He achieved critical success, but was about to abandon filmmaking to teach when he decided he would give it one more go. He sat down, collected his childhood memories of rural Arkansas, and wrote MINARI. The film is a deeply meditative experience of both remembrance and creativity. Chung’s vision bears fruit both in the film and the relationships it nurtured. The Yi family onscreen also finds meaning and deeper connection under the blue-sky expanse of rural Arkansas (though MINARI was actually filmed in Oklahoma). Art imitates life, and seemingly life has imitated art. Actors Steven Yeun and others found emotional depth and catharsis in real-life remembrance of their own immigrant and children-of-immigrant lives, and relationships with fathers, mothers, grandmothers, family, and ultimately, themselves.

The film opens with a close-up shot of 7-year old David (Alan Kim) in the back seat of a station wagon driven by his mother, Monica (Han Ye-ri), winding down narrow dirt roads through lush green fields. When they get to their new home, a single-wide trailer propped up on cinder blocks, father Jacob gets out of his U-Haul strutting like a proud cowboy (“walking just like a Korean man” as Youn Yuh-Jung, Oscar winning Best Supporting Actor for her role as grandmother, says in the audio commentary), while Monica’s face reads total defeat and anger at being put through all this. The facial expressions of the women mark much of the emotional journey, even as the film centers itself on the father’s dreams, ambitions and search for meaning, and the identity-formation of his young son. These are ultimately folded, though, into the pair’s relationships with the women of the film: Monica, Monica’s mother Soon-Ja (Youn), and to a lesser extent elder daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho).

Jacob dreams of success and riches, which will bring him respect and admiration from his family, as well as secure their futures in this new land. Monica is thinking of survival, safety, and a bit of comfort; and also for her man to center their family, not his own dream. Jacob begins this journey resolutely Korean- and reason-centric: “Koreans use their mind!” he proclaims to David as he searches for water. But by the end of the film, he must come to terms with the fact that his possibilities are not in his own mind and control.

Jacob eventually must tacitly relinquish the idea that he is the concrete architect of his own destiny. His life, his hopes, his family’s life, are all buoyed and weighted by forces much greater than him, and much greater even than the tornado that threatens early on. There are other people (including some Koreans who betray him and others who help him), and there is some kind of mystery in the land itself, necessitating relationships with dowsers, bankers and doctors. He argues with his wife, Monica, over their economic vs. relational fortunes and futures, and eventually accedes to the primacy of the latter. In the closing scene, as he picks the herb minari with his son, he has come full circle with the history he has been trying to outrun. He has learned the limits and tested the possibilities of his personal power, and he has deepened his noonchi, to read the room of his family and new land. His sense of betrayal by the “big-city Korean” has been replaced by a sense of connection to other Korean immigrants, and even this Oklahoma soil has become nurturing to Korean stock. The luck which turned bad when history in the form of grandmother arrived eventually turns survivable and good. Have not the transplanted vegetables, herbs, humans and histories created change in the soil as well?

But this truth, like minari, which dies in the first season before taking full root in the second, will take generations to be realized. Until then, we all live with the sun at our backs, tending our soil, facing the shadows of our memories as we try to imagine a future beyond, or through them.

David and his mother with a stethoscope (above), and author with one (below), predicting his future as a psychiatrist.

***

There are some who speculate that we live in a virtual reality matrix of an advanced civilization. Perhaps they are trying to work something out. Maybe they’re just entertaining themselves with cruelty and war. Maybe we are prisoners. At the very least, we ourselves are creating new worlds, and revisiting old ones, in film. And our minds are a kind of virtual reality that contains a kind of homuncular hologram of the world we can see and touch. That world is not well. We must minister it with all the medicines we can find; the sweet and bitter nectars of metamorphosis.

Film can feed our better angels; transform our worst tendencies; offer us hope; companion us in our loneliest times. They are technicolor messengers, awakening us to the world of the beautiful dream we bear, that beautiful world which wants to be understood, which wants to be beheld.

Maybe the advanced civilization has forgotten itself. Maybe we all too easily forget ourselves. Maybe we slip all too easily into misunderstanding, and ignorance, and all that ensues from their blotting flow.

The antidote for our dismemberment is remembrance. Only a new experience transfigured from memory can break us free of the repetition compulsion of our collective suffering.

Come, join me at the Midnight Diner. We can put it all together over a stir fry, or maybe a han-burger done up with all my favorite Indian spices.

So many to choose from.

Rumor has it that SF Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho “liked” this photo of the author’s stir fry. He’s ready for the Midnight Diner.

Footnote. Regarding the title “Master” in MIDNIGHT DINER: I recognize this word is triggering in American society; however, it has a completely different context in this Japanese series.

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist, writer and compassion educator in San Francisco, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. For fourteen years, he was lucky to have his MOSF posts published by the Center for Asian American Media, and now looks forward to broadening and building a diverse creative community and coalition through reflecting on culture and psychology for East Wind eZine. Sign up for updates here, and see all the posts hereHe writes from the metaphorical intersection of The Fillmore and Japantown in San Francisco, where Black and Asian communities have mingled since the end of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. He literally works there, between two Indian restaurants, go figure, though one has permanently shuttered during COVID. His award-winning debut documentary, The Bandaged Place: From AIDS to COVID and Racial Justice, will release in October, 2021. You can find him on Psychology Today,  Twitter,  Facebook,  Instagram,  YouTube,  SoundCloud, or better yet, in the IRL.

5 Comments

  1. Eddie Wong on August 28, 2021 at 8:30 am

    I would love to join you at a pop-up Midnight Diner… lights strung across an open deck, twinkling like so many fireflies inviting us to dream and drink slurping up pork ramen. Thank you for bringing us to films we need to see. I’ll definitely check out “Happy Cleaners” and “Claudine” now. There’s so much insightfulness in your writings about film as a metaphor for life. I also sense so much pain in your opening section, and I wish you find the balm we all so deserve. writing this while listening to Talk Talk’s “Laughing Stock,” their last CD in a sterling run of work.

    • Ravi Chandra on August 28, 2021 at 3:38 pm

      Shared meals with friends are extra-precious now. Hopefully more people have learned how to be more present with their relationships in the new-normal. And as you know, I’m using myself and my experience as an object of inquiry and remembrance, not denial and amnesia, which keeps me close to the vulnerability that is present for all. In other words – not a plea for help my friend! But hopefully will resonate with others who feel scarred especially by power.

  2. Dora on August 30, 2021 at 11:11 am

    Great writing! Being understood is always our deepest longing. Internally, I think it’s an interesting dynamics between ourselves and our parts. We need to understand to be understood. But we all have parts that are probably exiled for a long time, due to the external experiences. I think that’s why Midnight Dinner touches so many people’s heart. It creates a magical safe place for people to explore their exiled parts and to see others’ exiled parts. The felt sense of common humanity is so relieving and safe.

    • Ravi Chandra on August 30, 2021 at 11:48 am

      Thank you Dora! Yes! You have unlocked the mystery 🙂

      A collection of parts
      Ravi Chandra
      April, 2013

      I am a collection of parts, a multitude of selves –
      They play inside me like precocious elves.
      A warrior battles, a peacemaker works
      A heart/mind bureau, with tireless clerks.
      A woman, a child, an adversary, a friend –
      Critics and supporters and actors with ends.
      Healer and patient, trickster and mole
      They observe, they comment, they sometimes control.
      An emergence, a symphony, a chorus, a blend –
      A circus I carry, a circle I mend.
      Admirers with whispers, detractors with swords
      This collection is work – I’m never bored.
      Fractious and playful, serious and fun,
      Interdependent we are, from many we’re one.

      Power, subordination, oppression, suppression, divide and conquer tactics – always create misunderstanding, exile, shattering, and trauma. The only thing that can repair us is relating with compassion, self-compassion, and common humanity. I hope more people can work towards that paradigm shift from a world where power determines ‘good/bad’ and ‘reward/punishment’ and ‘insider/outsider’ to our necessary, vibrant and enlightened interdependent future.

  3. Stephen on August 30, 2021 at 8:41 pm

    Thank you, Ravi, for the richness of your references, your commitment to community and humanity, and for the joy you find in connecting all of this in our shared experience of Asian American film.

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