The small screen does not do justice to Minari, a rich, expansive film about the human condition. It is a film that refuses to conform, in nearly every way, to the tropes and traps that normally ensnare. In rejecting these rules, its attitude isn’t reckless, but tender.
It’s a film about farming that reveals new layers as you scratch beneath the surface — dust away the topsoil of family drama, and you’ll discover a Biblical allegory underneath. Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri play Jacob and Monica, a Korean couple who relocate from California with their two young children — Anne and David — to rural Arkansas. Fed up with his dead-end job, Jacob dreams of running a successful farm that specialises in Korean produce.
Watch the Minari trailer here
One of the earliest signs of his staunch self-reliance is when he turns down the services of a water diviner. Scoffing at the man’s quote of $300, Jacob uses it as a teachable moment for David. “Korean people use their heads,” he tells his son, and the two set about locating underground water themselves.
Minari is full of moments such as this — it is a movie about the minutiae.
Chung, who has partially based the story on his own childhood with first generation immigrant parents, is a humanist of the finest order. The story he is telling might seem very specific, but his ideas about family, about masculinity and motherhood, are infinitely accessible.
As Jacob and Monica embark on their uncertain new journey, their relationship strains. To ease some of the pressure, Monica’s mother, Soon-ja, moves in with them. Her arrival from South Korea is met with apprehension by the kids, who are struggling with displacement, just like their parents; California was their ‘home’.
“Grandma smells of Korea,” David complains, refusing to share his room with her. Monica, on the other hand, weeps when Soon-ja pulls out a surprise package of gochujang, straight from Korea.
But in addition to unfamiliar odours and fermented chilli paste, Soon-ja brings with her something else, the titular minari — an uncommonly resilient herb from the homeland, which serves as a rather obvious metaphor. She quietly plants it on the banks of a nearby pond, occasionally tracking its assimilation into American soil, which unfolds in parallel to the family’s own.
Equally potent, symbolically, is the Mountain Dew that David chugs for breakfast, lunch and dinner — a reminder of the American dream that his family was perhaps promised, only to find themselves stuck in a capitalist rut.
Minari is a dreamy film — unlike fellow Oscar-hopeful, it doesn’t romanticise the misfortunes of the misfits. The tone, however, rarely takes itself seriously. The film strikes profundity not through technical feats such as its magnificent score or its Malickian view of Americana, but through quiet moments of memory — like Monica lining the insides of drawers with paper, or the family joylessly watching an old Korean sitcom.
Chung alternates between ‘protagonists’. You are just as likely to empathise with Jacob’s determination to live up to some Biblical idea of a ‘provider’ — there are references to the Garden of Eden, a scene in a church, and an apocalyptic event towards the end — as Monica’s exasperation with his single-minded drive.
On other occasions, the film clearly plays out from David’s perspective, which vacillates between wide-eyed idealism and unshakable confusion. Never is this more apparent than a typically understated scene in which he observes his father’s right-hand man, a guilt-ridden local eccentric named Paul, literally lugging a cross on the highway, perhaps as an act of penance for his deeds during the Korean War.
Minari a special, groundbreaking film — another resounding collaboration between indie outfit A24 and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, is at par with their first, the Best Picture-winning.
Director – Lee Isaac Chung
Cast – Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Youn Yuh-jung, Noel Kate Cho, Will Patton
The author tweets