Near the end of Minari, an old woman is peacefully watching her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren sleep. Some hours ago, they escaped what could have been a fatal disaster, which was preceded by tension threatening to tear the family apart. Now, in the comfort of their home, the family appears snugly cocooned, as the sun rises to an ethereal score by Emile Mosseri.
This scene is the heart of Lee Isaac Chung’s largely autobiographical Minari, although for the longest time, it’s hard to grasp where Chung is heading with his poignant portrait of a Korean immigrant family trying to live the American dream in the Reagan years. Minari is a tapestry of vignettes, drawn from Chung’s memories of his childhood spent in the American state of Arkansas, where the film has also been shot. These vignettes are warm, funny, tender, and touching. They work not just as a portal to a different time, but also a different way of life.
Jacob Yi, played by Steven Yeun, who starred as the sociopathic Ben in the 2018 South Korean festival hit Burning, moves with his family from California to rural Arkansas. Here he aims to grow Korean vegetables for the Korean-American market. Jacob wants to escape his former trade of determining the sex of chicks, a profession shown to be dominated by Asian Americans in the film, and adopt a better lifestyle with his earnings as a farmer.
Jacob’s wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) isn’t pleased. She preferred the communal life of the city, especially her connections in the Korean church. The daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) is on mommy’s side. The son David (Alan Kim), a stand-in for the director, however, has faith in his father.
The all-round niceness is of a piece with Minari’s good-hearted tone.
Chung’s depiction of idyllic farm life in Minari, with its lush fields, blue skies, and green streams, is a sight for sore eyes, after more than a year of Zoom sessions and FaceTime. Helping Jacob with his farmwork is a devout Christian war veteran Paul (an excellent Will Patton), who speaks in tongues and walks with a giant cross on his shoulders each Sunday.
The arrival of the kids’ grandmother, Soon-ja, played by South Korean legend Youn Yuh-jung, injects excitement into their lives. The mischievous Soon-ja swears, teaches her grandkids to play cards, and is generally un-granny-like, as frequently pointed out by David. While Jacob’s family is marching forward through time, Soon-ja brings with her the history and traditions of their ancestors. It is Soon-ja who introduces the titular minari, an all-purpose plant used by Koreans in their food. The plant slowly assumes the metaphorical role of a charm holding the family together and ensuring its survival in the face of life’s curveballs.
Chung’s light touches as a director complement his screenplay, free of frills and cleverness. Until the climax, there appears to be no semblance of a structure with acts, as the film effortlessly moves from one episode to another. Yet, the characters evolve without drawing attention. Jacob and Monica have their ups and downs. Paul and Jacob’s unlikely camaraderie is intriguing. David warming up to Soon-ja is one of the film’s highlights.
Chung’s masterful control over his material slips near the end as he introduces a contrived scene to bring home the conflicts which had been brewing between Jacob and Monica. This is when Minari starts appearing formulaic. The climax that follows is a sentimental ruse to bring the story to its logical conclusion. The uninspired writing here is at odds with a story that had until then seemed gleefully aimless.
One particularly fascinating aspect of Minari is how benign and benevolent White Americans appear to the Yi family. With Asian Americans being frequently attacked in the United States amidst rising anti-Asian sentiment, the warmth with which the Yis are greeted and acknowledged by Whites seems too good to be true.
The all-round niceness is of a piece with Minari’s good-hearted tone. Alongside Lulu Wang and Chloe Zhao, Chung is part of a growing crop of Asian-American directors whose star is on the rise from bringing stories of their communities on the American screen.
In the run-up to the film’s astounding success in the ongoing awards season, Chung kept saying in interviews that he had almost given up filmmaking before Minari happened. What helped was Chung finding inspiration in American writer Willa Cather. Inspired by what Cather said about her life getting meaning “when she stopped admiring and started remembering”, Chung looked inwards and backwards into his own past for material, instead of drawing from the works of his favourite masters. Minari is testament to the effectiveness of mining personal history to generate freshness in contemporary cinema, when so much of it is cluttered with throwbacks, remakes, and borrowed images.