Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film Minari – a cathartic and intimate portrait of an immigrant family – was inspired by a Willa Cather quote: “Life began for me, when I ceased to admire and began to remember.” For years Chung avoided writing about his childhood, preferring to tell other stories. From his 2007 directorial debut, Munyurangabo – a documentary-style film shot in Rwanda in 11 days and filmed in the Kinyarwanda language – to his next two films, Lucky Life and Abigail Harm, his projects were often inspired by the lives of others.
After the birth of his daughter, Chung looked at his own life and discovered a natural story arc that was real and complex. His screenplay weaves intricate cultural details with fictional vignettes. The film is framed around key memories, from his close relationship with his South Korean grandmother, to the patch of minari – a hardy Korean plant that can thrive in the roughest soils – that she planted, to growing up on a farm in rural Arkansas.
The result is a nuanced look at the American Dream, gently but affectingly told. More importantly, Minari is a story for the Asian diaspora, joining films such as Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians.
Set in the 1980s, the film follows Jacob as he moves his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), and their two young children – David (Alan S. Kim), who suffers from a heart murmur, and Anne (Noel Cho) – from California to Arkansas to grow Korean vegetables on a plot of unkempt land. Shortly afterwards Monica’s mother Soon-ja – played by South Korean veteran screen darling Youn Yuh-jung – joins the family from the homeland.
Living in a rundown trailer on wheels, they adjust to their new life together. Jacob and Monica’s marriage is tense due to mounting financial pressures and uncertainty about the farm’s success. When not fixing up the farm, both parents work determining the sex of chicks at the local chicken hatchery, a job at which Jacob excels but which he also despises. But their hardships are flecked with moments of joy.
Throughout Minari beautiful cinematography captures the open landscape, depicting the American Dream in all its glory, melancholia and harshness. At night, the glow from the family’s trailer is the only light for miles. There are slow-moving pan shots, drenched in sunlight, that capture the stillness of the baking hot south. We also step inside the intimate world of the Yi family, confined in the trailer, and witness unfolding family tensions.
Chung often works with close-ups on Monica’s and Jacob’s face, which showcases the actors’ exceptional emotional range – restrained, quiet and direct. From Monica unleashing her anger about their supposed “new start” on the farm, to tenderly washing Jacob’s hair in the bathtub after a hard day’s work, the fragility of their relationship and of their new life in Arkansas is palpable.
Mimicking the dreamlike aspect of memory, surreal montages break the tension. Early in the film, Jacob rides a tractor with the family skipping behind him, followed by the children swinging on a tree – moments in which they appear briefly happy. Chung suggests that memories can be fallible, that we often only remember the good times.
Chung’s Munyurangabo, critically acclaimed for its compassion and authenticity, is about a friendship between two boys after the Rwandan genocide. He drew on his skills as a documentary maker, incorporating local cast and crew and Rwandan students from his filmmaking course. In Minari, Chung draws on the same skills: the difference is that he’s telling his own story, in his native language.
Minari is almost entirely spoken in Korean. Chung effortlessly places the audience in the shoes of his characters – it’s notable that the family doesn’t seek acceptance from exterior characters and the film never turns to stereotyping to make its story palatable for a white audience. In Minari, the “others” are white people such as the local water diviner, who offers a strange service that Jacob refuses as he doesn’t understand it.
This film moves at a glacial pace, offering time and space to explore the family’s cultural idiosyncrasies – from the family resting on a straw mat during hot summer nights to Monica using a tiny steel ear pick to clean out David’s earwax. Seeing these familiar domestic routines on screen, I couldn’t help but smile. There’s a poignant moment when Soon-ja unpacks and passes her daughter a rare bag of Korean chilli powder followed by dried anchovies, which causes Monica to burst into tears. Her visceral response is powerful: a gesture of love from mother to daughter, that’s also a reminder of home and comfort in a strange place.
Racial conflict is a common trope in immigrant stories, but remarkably it never arrives in Minari. The film is centred on the family and their internal struggle to love themselves and one another. Internalised racism is examined humorously through the character of the son, David. He is unimpressed with Grandma – she’s crass, loves to gamble and forces him to drink foul-tasting Korean soups. She is far from the conventional grandmother her American-born grandchildren expect. In the film David says that “Grandma smells like Korea”; he plays practical jokes on her and criticises her for not being a “real grandma” or baking cookies. Chung delicately examines David’s interiorised American gaze, and through his bursts of shame, guilt and anger we can see the unspoken, complex struggle of bicultural children.
Minari’s phenomenal cast is the reason why you want to stay in their world. Each actor compels the viewer to reflect on their own family relationships. The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun, who plays the central character Jacob Yi, has worked with Korean directors including Okja’s Bong Joon-ho and Burning’s Lee Chang-dong, playing charismatic and enigmatic men, but here his performance draws from the idea of the “Asian father”. He’s stoic and at times cold, but offers moments of grace and depth that allow us to understand the drive behind his flawed actions. Han’s portrayal of Monica is understated but powerful, combining vulnerability and strength in a heartbreaking performance.
The standout character is Soon-ja, performed with beguiling mischief by Yuh-jung, earning her a historic Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. As Grandma, she brings the family their history and culture, disrupting their routine while encouraging them to remember who they are.
Minari is nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture. Yeun is the first Asian–American actor to be nominated for Best Actor. The film won Best Foreign Language Film – but, controversially, not Best Film – at this year’s Golden Globes, similarly to 2020’s nominee The Farewell. Requiring films to have 50 per cent English dialogue to qualify demonstrates that Asian–American filmmakers still have many barriers to dismantle.
In several interviews, Chung has maintained that he had no intention of representing Asian–American identity while making the film – only an unwavering confidence that this was a story he wanted to tell authentically. However, the power of telling this very specific story saw it critically anointed as a political film around identity.
Chung refuses to be defined by these expectations. Minari might depict a tiny facet of the Asian–American experience, but by refusing to make identity its central narrative, the film paradoxically allows all Asian Americans to feel that they are fully seen.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "Field of dreams".
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