Minari Movie review: A poignant drama about the power of hope
Lee Isaac Chung, in this seemingly modest film about an immigrant South Korean family, imparts bigger thoughts and gives us a story that is heart-breaking and optimistic at the same time
What holds a family together? Minari’s protagonist Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun, an Oscar-hopeful for Best Actor) seems to be convinced that money is the key. As a South Korean immigrant in America, he is done sexing chickens in California and wants more out of life. As the film opens, we see Jacob and his family move into their new home in the remote hinterlands of Arkansas in the early 80s. He has spent his savings buying a piece of land that he wants to farm. Jacob strives hard to be the provider of the family, and it makes sense for him to be obsessed with creating wealth for his wife and two children. However, his wife Monica Yi (Han Ye-Ri) disagrees. “We can’t save each other, but money can?” she asks her husband.
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Cast: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-Ri, Youn Yuh-Jung, Alan S.Kim, Noel Cho
All through the movie, we find Monica pining not for money, but her mother, a community, and the little joys in life. Just a bag of myeolchi (dried anchovies) from her native country moves Monica to tears. She is also more worried about her son David (Alan Kim), who is suffering from a heart condition. The dissimilarity between the husband and wife is just one of many conflicts in Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film which, on the face of it, seems conflictless.
Similarly, Minari is seemingly modest. Walking out of the movie, I kept wondering what could be the logline of the film. To call it the story of a South Korean family struggling to raise a farm in America, though correct, is inadequate. Superficially, the film seems simple, but what could be more radical than a South Korean immigrant wanting to plant Korean vegetables on American soil? Lee Isaac Chung subtly imparts such ambitious thoughts as we sail through the everyday life of this family.
The subtlety is found in the religious symbols as well. Jacob’s eccentric recruit Paul (Will Patton), who carries a humongous wooden cross on Sundays, is perhaps the most apparent one. There is a lurking fear of snakes in the nearby pond, and we even get to see one. And then we have Jacob referring to his farm as ‘garden’. As we wonder, where the director is going with all the references, we get our answers towards the end. Lee Isaac Chung brilliantly picturises Christianity as the only connection between this family and the new terrain they have ventured into. When Monica wonders why all the Koreans there don't start a church together, her Korean colleague jokingly asks if they didn't all leave their country "to escape the Korean church." Monica and her family end up going to an American church. We understand it was not faith that this lonely wife was seeking, but community - a sense of belongingness.
Minari is not seamless as it progresses through time showing bits and pieces of intimate family moments, but that doesn’t take anything away from the movie. The humour that brims out of such moments is hilarious and pleasant at the same time. Much of the credit goes to the brilliant performance of Youn Yuh-Jung (another Oscar-hopeful for Best Supporting Actress) as the rustic and fun-loving grandma Soon-ja. The tension between her and her grandson David is heartwarming to watch.
What moved me the most about Minari is its universality despite being very specific. Its linguistic identity became a matter of debate when the film was awarded Best Foreign Film at The Golden Globes. Though most of the dialogues are in Korean, the film, which has bagged six Oscar Nominations, is directed by an American director with a predominantly American cast. Minari, thus, refuses to fit into a box. To me, it belongs to the language of cinema that transcends borders -- one that speaks to everyone.