Truth and Movies

Minari

Review by Kambole Campbell @kambolecampbell

Directed by

Lee Isaac Chung

Starring

Alan S Kim Steven Yeun Yeri Han

Anticipation.

Early buzz was off the charts, and Steven Yeun sure is good at picking his parts of late.

Enjoyment.

In the moment, emotionally devastating.

In Retrospect.

A moving portrayal of the pains of assimilation, bolstered by Chung’s writing and direction.

This gorgeous semi-memoir filters the ragged glory of the American Dream through a family of South Korean immigrant farmers.

It’s obvious but important to note that Lee Isaac Chung ’s Minari is as American a film as it gets. Set in the 1980s, on the cusp of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, it is the autobiographical story of a Korean-American family adjusting to life in Arkansas after moving there from the West Coast.

It is, above all else, a story of faith and resilience, but also resistance to cultural and social assimilation. Like the minari plants of the title, which are able to thrive on even the most unlikely terrain, the members of the family at the film’s centre grit their teeth and start again. The struggle of rebuilding from the ground up is embodied by the virgin soil on the tract of rural land the family have just purchased with their meagre savings.

Chung’s story follows the family as patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) seeks to develop a farm growing Korean crops. While the children – older daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and younger, American-born son David (Alan S Kim) – seem to think nothing of this move, their mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) displays immediate dismay. Joining a little later is Monica’s mother Soonja (Youn Yuh- jung), who is a mite more open-minded about the venture despite her no-nonsense nature.

Jacob’s obsession with the idea of making his farm a success (and thus fulfilling his role as family head and provider) appears almost Sisyphean in the seemingly never ending procession of setbacks that unfold across the film’s runtime. There’s an immediate uneasiness as Monica pointedly and succinctly tells Jacob, “This isn’t what you promised.” Her trust in his schemes is waning, and continues to do so as their son’s heart defect weighs heavy on her mind. The fractures between the two are made all the more apparent by scenes of failing intimacy, as well as the children’s practiced intervention during the parents’ louder fights.

Han transmits the acute distress that continued support of her husband’s schemes brings. Her longing for the city, and perhaps even an escape back to Korea, is ever apparent, albeit unspoken. This furtive statement only emphasises the emptiness of their rickety mobile home, which itself feels representative of the lack of a safety net or support system for a family already on the brink.

Read more in LWLies 88: The Minari Issue 

An early physical gag showing Jacob climbing up into his new home, sans steps, and the thematic detail of Minari is clear. As with a lot of Chung’s painful observations about striving for self-sustainability in the US, it’s a moment tinged with absurdity. That light strain of comedy is a powerful element in the film’s subversive treatment of the convention, immediately setting it free of the miserablist sensibilities that often define such chronicles of immigrants, the working class or even just non-white families.

But Minari’s recourse to comedy is an essential part of its focus on striving against what are often unreasonable odds. As Jacob helps Monica into the house, the wavering trust and air of both conviction and desperation is already clear. A single word on the subject of the family’s second new beginning has yet to be spoken.

Despite an initial focus on parental woes, the exploration of pint-sized David’s perspective on becoming American is the heart of the film – at points literally so as he struggles with the limits imposed by his burgeoning cardiovascular issues.

His evolving perspective on what it means to be American – and the film’s most potent emotional hook – is characterised by his new relationship with his grandmother Soonja, played by Youn Yuh-jung in what might be the film’s best and most lively performance. Even when turning his nose up at certain Korean foods (including Soonja’s acrid medicinal tonic), his childish refusal to engage with his elder and her antics never asks us to look down on him, even at his most petulant and frustrating.

Unlike most of his family, David was born in America, and knows little of Korean culture. He even actively shuns it, partially through his standoffishness with Soonja (“She smells like Korea!”). In his eyes she doesn’t act like a real grandma: she speaks with abrasive language and watches wrestling on TV while hammering back Mountain Dew. As funny and charming as Youn’s performance is, it’s also an embodiment of the idea that not fully assimilating isn’t failure, but a marker of independence. For all her seemingly chaotic actions, Soonja is a strangely stabilising presence for the family, reminding the younger generation of their roots while also showing an open-mindedness when it comes to travelling down new paths.

For all his own playfulness, young Kim (sporting miniature cowboy boots throughout) has a sense of reserve to his actions. This is likely self-imposed, due to his parent’s concern for his health, but also a reflection of his desire to fit in with his peers. The slow shift in Kim’s performance as he plays off of Youn, towards the realisation that his behaviour shouldn’t change merely for the benefit of the others, is truly touching – even devastating – in its accurate representation of the experiences of first-generation children and in the growing tenderness between the two characters. Kim’s performance evokes the social dramas of Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, who similarly imbues the emotional lives of children with a quiet dignity.

Chung’s delicate hand in portraying each character’s personal struggle is clear from the outset, this patch of American countryside depicted in hazy golden light and soft focus. The family (with sleeping children) pull up behind the rental truck transporting them to another fresh start. Chung observes the family with a subtle and quiet grace that isn’t often afforded to non-white families of the rural working class. Lachlan Milne’s camerawork captures verdant landscapes bathed in hues of glowing natural light. The film’s hazy, dreamlike images evoke the ephemeral nature of Jacob’s promise to his family – one that has apparently been made time and again.

In observing the family’s interactions with one another across the course of the film, Chung makes clear that faith is the uniting factor, but not strictly in the spiritual sense. Their move to Arkansas stems from Jacob’s faith in his idea of the American Dream, and the family’s cooperation based on their faith in him as the patriarch. David learns to have faith in the value of his heritage, and his own resilience.

“Chung’s ambiguous depiction of faith suggests that God and the American Dream are similarly ill-defined presences.”

Every character in Minari has reached some crisis of faith, and it’s a sign of the film’s restraint that it resists the urge to place these themes directly in the sermons of the church that the Yi family intermittently attend. Jacob speaks of practicality and logic in viewing the world, mocking prayers and acts of blind faith, such as a man who can supposedly locate ground water with a dowsing rod.

This is the contradiction at the core of his character, that without realising, he is both rationalist and dreamer. Chung embodies that paradox in the film’s textural details, such as in its practically spiritual (perhaps even Malick-esque) imagery of the land, and the mixture of earthy strings and ethereal vocals of Emile Mosseri’s score.

What Jacob appears oblivious to – himself having an overtly Biblical name – is that working for self-sufficiency requires its own kind of faith. He prays to the land for deliverance, to save his family. Chung’s ambiguous depiction of faith suggests that God and the Dream are similarly ill-defined presences. Each family member has a different notion of the importance of both, and each has their own cross to bear, something literalised by the somewhat absurd visual of a man dragging a giant wooden one down the road.

Minari doesn’t seek answers to these questions nor a universal depiction of religion, immigration or assimilation. Its power lies in portraying how these ideas complicate the American experience, and the simple beauty of witnessing a family reaffirming their devotion to one another.

Minari is available to watch at home from 2 April and is released in cinemas 17 May.

Published 30 Mar 2021

Tags: Alan S Kim Lee Isaac Chung Minari Steven Yeun

Anticipation.

Early buzz was off the charts, and Steven Yeun sure is good at picking his parts of late.

Enjoyment.

In the moment, emotionally devastating.

In Retrospect.

A moving portrayal of the pains of assimilation, bolstered by Chung’s writing and direction.

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