On ‘Minari’ and Gently Cultivating a Heavy Story

Minari is a moving piece of poetry with an ordinary story about ordinary people: people who had to upheave their roots for the hopes of a fruitful life. Like what the film’s executive producer Steven Yeun said, the immigrant experience does not need to be romanticized. In this semi-autobiographical film by South Korean-American writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, recognizing one’s roots can be joyful, painful, but primarily necessary.

“I started off just writing down a lot of memories as an exercise. It came to around eighty memories and I started to see the shape of a story that starts with an arrival at this farm…” Chung, a son of immigrants, recounts in a conversation with Dennis Lim, the Director of Programming at Film at Lincoln Center. He also shares that he wanted to “reframe” US’ political discussion on immigrants “in a human way.” As a mere spectator from the Philippines, I did witness his universal intention through watching Minari, and understood the language the film is trying to speak.

In the film, the Yi family yearns for a new start in the early ’80s and leaves the city life in California to move to a rural area in Arkansas. Right away, there’s a lingering sense of dividedness in the opening sequence where the family drives to their new home. A delicate piano ballad by Emile Mosseri scores the scene. Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri) quietly drives with her children: the introverted preteen Anne (Noel Cho) and the clever seven-year-old David (Alan Kim). Steven Yeun (Burning) as Jacob Yi separately wheels ahead of his family in a rental truck. With them, we examine the passing muted green countryside. Monica is visibly disappointed with the sight of a neighborless trailer home that awaits them. The kids, however, are weirdly enamored with what they call “a house… with wheels.”

There is ineffable ease, a thematic lightness, and quirk in Chung’s writing for his now fourth feature film, from the mundane yet endearingly entertaining dialogue to its slow charge of raging emotions. His sensitive effort to accumulate warm and cold lines is very much felt—he raises them one by one during the right moments.

Jacob is presented as a farmer first and a father second. As much as his wife Monica questions his choices for their family, his commitment to producing a farm of Korean crops isn’t faltering. The majority of his attention is focused on this dream, which eventually turns him to nearly neglecting his family.

Plants are delicate. They require intensive natural care. Jacob works hard to sustain and nurture its needs. Chung mirrors that patience in his direction: his softness in breaking down a deeply personal and difficult story is palpable on the screen. This immigrant family tale feels like it was crafted by the hands of a farmer; its storytelling is gentle, strategic, and responsible.

Monica and Jacob began working as chicken sexers in a nearby hatchery, separating female chicks from male chicks. The dividedness is tested even more when Monica’s unfiltered, fun-loving mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) arrives from South Korea and figuratively brings the country to their home. This was met with sly rejection from her grandchildren Anne and David; the American-born children find their grandma culturally strange and unfitting. Despite this, Soonja and David naturally share the same sense of humor.

Grandma Soonja (left) teaches Anne (middle) and David (right) how to play Go-Stop, a Korean card game that usually involves trash talking

Over the land where their mobile home stands, Jacob has built a huge garden of great produce with the help of Paul, a local elderly white man whose religion is taken to an extremist level. Paul is excellently executed by actor and book narrator Will Patton. He is unsettling as he is outstanding. Every Sunday, Paul drags a heavy cross like Jesus Christ once did. Along the landscape, a bus passes him where kids inside stare and one berates him aggressively while David smiles at Paul without hesitation. That’s one of the likable qualities of David: he’s bound to openly accepting people.

Actor Alan Kim as the adorable David Yi

As people, our instinct is to look for some kind of connection; may it be cultural or societal, to religion, to family, or a better self. On the surface, Minari is about a financially struggling Korean immigrant family in America. But underneath, the film grapples with the many faces of failing to make a connection. David and Anne have their mixed identities to figure out. To make a connection to the American culture they’re living in, their South Korean culture is compromised, which any cross-cultural kids and third culture kids probably find relatable. For Jacob, he fails to meet his wife’s expectations. In one sequence in which his son David’s worsening heart condition is being checked at the hospital, Jacob seems to be more noticeably concerned with his box of vegetables that needs to be delivered to a customer. And this is one of the instances that makes Monica feel disconnected from him. Actress Han Ye-ri as Monica performs more emotional breakdowns than her co-stars. Every time she expels her tearful frustrations, she gracefully does so as any good mother would. Monica’s mother Soonja is a different kind of good. She has unique efforts to connect and get closer to her grandchildren. Just like the rest of her family, she fails sometimes too. Chung distinctly actualizes all these loose threads and links them together for this beautiful canvas of a film.

As Jacob faces the challenges of producing Korean crops in a foreign land, his children’s detachment from their Korean roots fatally grows. David and Anne experience casual racism from their white peers who target their language and appearance. At first, I thought the film humanizes and humors the racism of the young white children, but granting that director Chung depicts his experience as a third culture kid trying to assimilate, his approach is simply honest.

Within the strains of dichotomy between the main characters, their impeccable chemistry stands out intimately. It isn’t that surprising coming from a deliberately coordinated casting, who all move in mellowly colorful art direction and neatly detailed production design.

Once again, Yeun’s charisma and political sensibility as an actor concludes a character like Jacob to be dramatically flawed yet forgivable. Two artists exceptionally rise from the tender performances: Yuh-Jung Youn’s brilliant portrayal of a vibrant South Korean grandma is charmingly authentic, funny, and ultimately heart-breaking; and almost everything Alan Kim does as the precocious David is a discovery and simply a prodigy at work.

There are paradoxes that form the many conflicts in Minari, but these paradoxes, too, are brilliantly transposed to mend the gaps and differences of a breaking family. Speaking of which, I rarely see movies that don’t treat farmers as a minor element for background aesthetics. It’s nice to see one as the intelligent center of a stunning portrait. My farmer dad would love to see this.

‘Minari’ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2020. It is set by A24 for a theatrical release starting on February 12, 2021 and will be followed by a VOD release on Feb. 26.

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