Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari serves up a quietly engaging slice of life
Minari is a modest film about big things — ambition, family, immigration and assimilation. It’s based loosely on writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s experiences in a South Korean family living in rural America. In 1983, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) brings his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and two kids, and all their belongings, to what looks like a godforsaken five acres of Arkansas land, with a forlorn trailer sitting atop the dry grass. Monica hates the place on sight; Jacob hopes to raise a farm here, and one day have fifty acres. I’m not sure we understand Jacob’s life choice any more than Monica does, but it’s his dream, so we go with it, hoping for the best.
Jacob sees what others don’t: the soil is actually a rich color that tells him it may yield the crop of his fantasies. He hopes to grow all Korean fruits and vegetables, and sell them to fellow Korean transplants. In brief, Jacob has a foot in each world; he has the gumption of a dust-bowl American but seeks to bring some of his home country into his adopted country. Monica would rather go back to the city, or at least back to California, where Steven was a top chicken sexer. Which is how the Yis keep the lights on in Arkansas until the crops come in.
Monica decides to bring her own home to this new place — her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), who watches the kids but doesn’t act enough like a grandma for the liking of the youngest child David. (As probably the director’s avatar, David gets a lot of screen time without necessarily seeming like the central character — it’s really an ensemble piece — and he has a sister Anne, who it’s easy to forget exists.) Minari is appealing, though short on moviemaking electricity; it’s quietly pictorial, satisfying — along with fellow Best Picture nominee Nomadland — our desire to see America as a big broad land with endless pockets of beauty.
Jacob and Monica go at each other quite a lot, the eternal clash of the pragmatic wife and the dreamer husband. Even so, the film is good-natured; even a couple of blinkered white kids who encounter David and Anne just blurt out highly inappropriate-even-in-1983 questions (“Why is your face so flat?”) not out of malice but just out of blunt curiosity. David gets a sleepover with his new friend; if Anne does, we don’t see it. Anyway, even the film’s Americans who initially set off our radar turn out okay — like ol’ Paul (Will Patton), who invokes Jesus constantly, speaks in tongues, and hauls a life-size cross around a dirt road as “his church.” Refreshingly, Paul stays a loyal farmhand to Jacob, and doesn’t turn out to be a villain. The Yis don’t encounter much racism that we can see. Minari isn’t about that; it centers on how hard it is for a foreigner to follow the American dream, how remarkable it is when they can find any kind of success.
We are all, of course, foreigners here if we go back far enough, unless we have indigenous lineage. But Chung doesn’t make the mistake of saying we’re all the same under the skin. These are closely specific characters. Soon-ja, for instance, seems like a whole and authentic person with quirks and preferences. She isn’t ennobled, though; Chung sees her fondly but not sentimentally. Whatever way you might expect her to be drawn — strict, disapproving, old-school, secretly soft-hearted, the usual clichés — Yeun Yuh-jung steers clear of it. Her Soon-ja seems more easygoing than her daughter; she’d be a good grandma to have, cussing and teaching you card games and getting a little too involved in TV wrestling. Yet the performance is subtle, not an example of the life force, or “when I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” or any of that.
Chung avoids the trap of turning his experience into an omnibus of tropes. Toxic as this concept seems now, when Jacob and Monica argue, we can legitimately see both sides. Neither one is judged for their flaws or blind spots. Minari is named after an edible plant that grows wild; Soon-ja, perhaps out of solidarity with Jacob, plants some minari seeds at a nearby stream. Much is made of water in the film, the need for it, the lack of it, and finally an event that demands it. We could put on our professor hats and note the symbolism and subtext, but that doesn’t seem like an organic way to respond to a slice-of-life story whose teller wants to pay respects to his parents and grandma, who weren’t larger than life, just people playing the hand they were dealt — or dealt themselves.