Earlier this month, my friend Anya and I were discussing a Letterboxd review panning Riceboy Sleeps, an early Sydney Film Festival favourite. The review expressed their fatigue towards the explosion of sad-Asian-diaspora-child-navigating-Western-society cinema. Though this new trend heralded important representation, we agreed it has plateaued with many new releases retreading the same grounds, with the same characters, coming to the same conclusions. Anya said plainly, “I really don’t wanna watch another sad Asian migrant movie […] same with the Denmark migration one tbh.” I rebutted saying, “I think it’s meant to be slow and surreal, so that might be an interesting take on it”.
The Quiet Migration is the brainchild of Danish-Korean director and writer Malene Choi, whose previous work — a 2018 social drama called The Return — was about Danish-Korean adoptees visiting South Korea. In The Quiet Migration, Choi returns to similar themes inspired by her own experiences. Set in current day rural Denmark, Carl is a Korean adoptee living and working on a farm with his white parents, Karen and Hans. He has been raised to take over the family farm eventually but seems indifferent to this fate. Choi takes us through a small slice of life during the most crucial time of Carl’s life, finding himself at 19 years old. Carl is stuck between two worlds: physically in the country he has known his whole life, and mentally in the mystery of his motherland.
Instead of undercutting Won Riedel-Clausen’s brilliant portrayal of Carl with heavy handed dialogue, Choi opts for unconventional editing and camera movements to place the audience firmly inside Carl’s head. She rotates the camera 145 degrees when Carl’s crush, Marie, leans her head on his shoulders because his world begins to turn. She superimposes a ghostly image of Marie eating and dancing with Carl because he is daydreaming about her. She overlays the chaotic Seoul cityscape onto the bucolic Danish countryside because Carl is torn between his two homes. Though these effects were enthralling to watch, it was difficult to conceive such stylism as anything more than visual experiments when the core story is somewhat lacking substance.
Where the film really shines is between Carl’s interactions with his loved ones. After experiencing microaggressions at a wedding, Carl confronts Hans about his lack of intervention. His father’s reply is quietly saddening, but often typical: “just ignore it”. In these moments it was clear that Carl will never truly be seen beyond his race in a white society, despite lifelong attempts at assimilation. Still, Choi taps into classic Asian familial tropes to communicate that Carl’s relationship with his parents runs deeper than racial differences and geographic borderlines. The way his parents hide Hans’ illness so as to not worry Carl, the way Karen shows her love by bringing food to Carl’s room, and the way they celebrate him by funding his trip to Europe. In return, he offers them his future to stay and take care of the farm. Their love for him might be superficially different, but the experience for many ethnic children born into a life of expectations and emotionally-distant parents is universal.
As mentioned, the broader theme of melancholic migration has been heavily explored in recent years, from festival hits (Limbo), to Netflix originals (Tigertail) and Academy Award darlings (Minari). What Choi does differently for this over–trodden genre is her ability to break down the functional elements to its barest essential and rebuild with something more poetic, more reminiscent of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. While she does not always succeed in storyline and plot execution, she achieves an exercise in thematic distillation and some beautiful characterisation. Take this ridiculous analogy: if Crazy Rich Asians walked so Minari could run, The Quiet Migration is leisurely pacing on a different road and microdosing LSD. Ultimately, I was correct that The Quiet Migration was slow and surreal, and indeed very heartfelt, but this did not make it interesting.