Exploring microaggressions against people of color has come to the forefront over the last decade. Phrases or jokes once considered commonplace are often rooted in long-held racist sentiment. For those of us from white, specifically from European backgrounds, a long overdue reckoning has occurred. This has helped gain more understanding and perspective for some, while other people continue to commit these aggressions on a daily basis. Throughout The Quiet Migration, protagonist Carl (Cornelius Won Riedel-Clausen) receives insults from those he considers family. Director Malene Choi pushes the audience to live in the awkward and upsetting harm this does to a person. The minimalist approach helps drive home the power of language while allowing its characters to understand the power of what makes a home.
Carl (Riedel-Clausen) does not want the life he’s leading. His adoptive parents, Hans (Bjarne Henriksen) and Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), try their best to give him a happy life. However, he does not want to inherit the farm they work for money and goods. Meanwhile, Carl hears snide remarks from those around him regarding his East Asian ethnicity. Worse, the jokes and microaggressions come from his extended family. With Carl’s birthday on the horizon, there’s hope he can travel home to South Korea. At the same time, he begins to see apparitions of his birth mother.
Choi paints Carl’s world with authenticity from the word go. The visual language of The Quiet Migration goes beyond naturalism into vérité. Using long takes and subtle camera movements helps establish a visual palette out of documentary features like Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana. In other moments, we simply sit and watch our characters engage in seemingly meaningless tasks, which helps engrain us within the world.
It forces the audience to understand that the world around Carl is slow, and as a result, we have to move at the pace the characters live their lives. Choi juxtaposes country life with clubs, bars, and dancing, allowing the modernity that Carl craves to be just out of reach. This becomes even more powerful as a storytelling tool, which forces the audience to feel the push and pull of Carl’s potentially kinetic life. This pacing will cause some to lose patience, but it also helps us get to the heart of Carl’s issues.
Rieldel-Clausen steps into a role that many would over-perform. There are moments in his quiet reflection that become gut punches, but he never delivers them with the intention to harm. Instead, he simply wants to question his place in the world and often shows immaturity as he conducts that search. At the same time, his questions and desires are valid. Rieldel-Clausen walks a fine line, but as an immigrant adoptive child, he is also someone without a place. Rieldel-Clausen brings a quiet sadness and longing to the role and helps the film soar. The ways he cautiously navigates the world is both heartbreaking and endearing.
Rieldel-Clausen gets tremendous support from the subtle performances from Henriksen & Jørgensen. They each get a chance to shine, not only for the love they show their son but in their inability to understand his struggles. As two adults who grew up as part of the majority of their community, they never face some of Carl’s trials or tribulations. Even within their family, they are treated with immense respect, while Carl becomes a punching bag. Both performers display an incredible naturalism in their roles, adding to the feeling that we are watching a documentary, not a narrative feature. However, when called upon to deliver the emotional goods, both soar. Jørgensen, in particular, dominates the screen in several short sequences.
Beyond some questionable pacing at times, The Quiet Migration contains few flaws. One can argue the characters that deliver one-liners are too thinly drawn. However, it’s unlikely that the people of a small Danish town even realize the offense of their actions. We do not need to be more creative in the depictions of racism. However, some moments of The Quiet Migration could have used more development. The use of another character of East Asian descent, portrayed by Clara Thi Thanh Heilmann Jensen might have been more impactful on The Quiet Migration. Instead, she’s ignored throughout much of the story.
The Quiet Migration fires on most cylinders and gives us a view into an authentic experience. People of east Asian descent rarely see their stories told in Western culture. Choi brings a unique pathos to the tale that helps land the emotional heartbeats of this story. The visualizations and time Choi takes in each scene show immense promise. It would not be out of hand to compare her work to Kelly Reichardt or Kenneth Lonergan. One hopes Choi gets the opportunity to bring her quiet but impactful emotional storytelling to the largest stages possible.