Oscars 2021: Minari's depiction of migrant culture underlines human need to seek home away from home

Manik Sharma
·4-min read

Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon once defined migration as "an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety, and a better future". The world no longer sits on pillared concrete basements but moves around on the wheels of opportunity. We go where life seems better, full of promise, and perpetually safer than the neighbourhoods we occupy. It is, you could argue, also a case of wanting to move to the grass that seems greener. That also points to dissatisfaction as much as it leads us to believe people yearn for a better life.

Lee Isaac Chung's Minari, though set in the '80s US, echoes the anxieties of a modern world where people live unanchored lives, holding more dearly onto aspiration and dreams than the tangibility of homes and cultures.

Minari, which is also the name of an East Asian herb, follows a Korean family of five that have just left California for the meadow-y sunlit fields of Arkansas. Jacob, played by the brilliant Steven Yeun, is obsessed with the intimate dream of having his own farm. He has left behind a steady yet unfulfilling job in a chicken hatchery in California. His wife Monica, played by Han Ye-ri, quietly disapproves of this ambitious plan. The two are joined in this journey by their two children and the wistfully outspoken grandma Soonja, played by the lovely Youn Yu-jung.

The biographical quality of Minari is easy to grasp. Chung based the film on his experiences of growing up on an Arkansas farm, and the sunlit streak with which each frame is crafted echoes the director's fondness for his childhood, even its harsh lessons.

Chung's film has a feel-good sensibility despite its harsh foundations. Jacob discovers more help than he expected in the form of the devout farming partner Paul. It is a lovely relationship of unquoted respect between strangers. The respect that a man pursuing his own small dream may elicit from strangers. Even the difficult moments are treated with a stroke of bearable dejection rather than anger. Jacob and Monica crumble, not as much under the load of their circumstances but under the anxiety of different paths they wish to take in life. Jacob's persistence, his faith in his farm is as painfully life-affirming as Monica's disenchantment with the whole idea is understandable.

It is a film that avoids the clichés of an underdog story, and puts you in the shoes of this small Korean family, that like pretty much everyone else in the world has, at some point, tried to make a home away from home. The question, however is, did you ever even leave the one you were born in?

Jacob's insistence to grow Korean vegetables that the migrant community in the US might buy points to our search for home comforts. Even on an alien land the seed that Jacob sows is one he has taste for. Migrants around the world, whether they move beyond national borders or within them, carry their culture with. It may manifest in the food you eat, the music you listen or the prayer you say. By doing so, it irrevocably becomes part of the culture of the place you are at. Absorption is culture's first evolutionary step. Creation comes much later. When you move from a small town, to a big city, or vice-versa, you carry with yourself not only a cosmetic sense of dressing and etiquette, but also an intimate sense of language and morality. Together, they educate the relationships you cultivate, the anxieties you nurse, and the circumstances you will eventually ignore. That Minari does not contemplate America's racist centre in the wake of nature's fatalism is also indicative of what the director feels is more challenging. It may not be true for everyone, but it is a perspective worth absorbing nonetheless.

If you stretch identity through history, no one has ever lived in one place. We are all migrants, only some more recent or frequent compared to others. This wave of perennially merging and breaking cultures has made it difficult for modern-day antagonists to carve their politics around identity.

The surge of right-wing politics around the world is a natural response to the liberal movement of people, the inter-change and subsequent mixing of cultures and heritages. Minari, therefore, is a beautifully time-fitted capsule that you can journey with back or forward in time.

Each place you stop is beset by familiar challenges and titanic battles that the human spirit must fight. These battles, Minari tells us, are often chosen as much as they are perceived to be assigned by fate. Whatever path you take, you take some of everything you have left behind, the mantle of your identity, the courage to go beyond it and more. Destiny, just maybe, is not the fruit you seek, but the seed you carry, inside; yearning for that day of dignity under the sun. What does it matter then, the piece of land, that lets you have it?

Minari is now available in Indian cinemas. Oscars 2021 will air in India on 26 April.

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