Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Writer: Lee Isaac Chung
Stars: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung
By Calum Cooper
The Golden Globe nominations for “Minari” (2020) reveal a fatal flaw in what Western award shows’ concept of a “foreign” film is. “Minari”, despite being set in America, funded by America, and narratively concerns the American Dream, was nominated in the Foreign Language category because most of the dialogue wasn’t in English. Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” (2019) encountered a similar problem last year. It shows at best a ridiculous and at worst a worrying lack of awareness on how culture and language aren’t always defined by borders. Especially because “Minari” is an easy contender for 2020’s Best Motion Picture.
The Glasgow Film Festival has always boasted impressive opening features in my experience, but with “Minari” opening 2021’s festival, the GFF team may have outdone themselves. “Minari” centres around a Korean-American family living in 1980s America, consisting of Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri) and their young children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim). They move from California to a remote fifty-acre land in Arkansas, where they live in a small trailer, and supply their own food and water. It has always been Jacob’s dream to own fifty acres and a farm, but Monica’s uncertainty on what this move means for them and their children leads to numerous complications.
Director/writer Lee Isaac Chung based “Minari” on his own childhood experiences, and from the moment the film opens his direction spellbinds. This is a story rooted in themes of immigration, culture, assimilation, and everything in between. Prior to the births of their children, Jacob and Monica migrated from Korea to America, escaping the aftermath of the Korean War to give themselves and their children a shot at a better life. It’s the same reason the first settlers sailed to America centuries ago; an opportunity to begin again on the promise that hard work always yields good fortune. But now that the Yis are here, is the American Dream merely a dream?
Chung has crafted a rich, layered film that is open to various thematic interpretations, be it cultural or ideological.
Jacob is enamored by the American Dream. Although he clearly loves his wife and children, there is rarely a moment when he isn’t seen working at the chicken sexing company he and Monica are employed at, or tending to his farm in his free time. He tries so hard to fulfil the requirements of the American Dream that he is often blind to the problems Monica is staunchly aware of. Their isolation may be tranquil, but without the convenience of nearby schools, hospitals or social circles (e.g. churches) that Californian cities provided them with, the Yis’ options for life and leisure are severely limited. This concern is amplified by David having a heart condition that Monica constantly frets over. Jacob and Monica bicker about these issues regularly, but Chung always displays empathy for both parties’ points of view.
And that is not even taking the cultural aspects of their new livelihood into consideration. Chung takes scenarios and dilemmas that are otherwise commonplace and underlines them with assimilation, a topic the film treats with light caution. This is because Jacob and Monica simultaneously want to fit in with the American way of life and stay true to their Korean heritage. It is easy for their children, who were born in America and already subscribe to Western ideas, but for the parents every decision feels like a gamble. Basic questions that monocultures wouldn’t even think twice about – like which church to go to or what food to grow – are tainted with concepts of identity and assimilation, as well as how far the family should go with either of them.
Chung has crafted a rich, layered film that is open to various thematic interpretations, be it cultural or ideological. One can glean a harrowing account on the strength and limits of resolve from this for example. Personally, I think “Minari” is a damnation of the American Dream, and how it rarely works out for those who come into the country looking for opportunity – the very people the ideology is designed for. Jacob especially embodies this. For all his faults, he’s still a hard-working man. Although he has at last seemingly achieved his dream at the start of “Minari” he has to work thrice as hard to keep it, to the point where Monica starts to see his decision making as a choice between the farm and his family. Achieving dreams means nothing when you lose your integrity or compassion along the way. Where movies like “Nightcrawler” (2014) demonstrate how the American Dream is best suited to sociopaths and those who play the game for themselves, “Minari” shows how those who honestly devote themselves to the American Dream find little room for anything else in life.
But the film is not all cynicism either. A key scene features the planting of minari seeds in a forest not far from the Yis’ home. Minari, known also as Java waterdropwort, is a resilient plant that grows almost anywhere and acts as a useful component for most human wants, be it food, medicine or otherwise. Its planting serves as a touching family moment in the film, but also as a reminder that perseverance is one of the finest qualities of all. Where there is perseverance there can be optimism and where there is optimism there can be hope.
“Minari” is a film that rides a spectrum of emotions and themes, and hits every one of them with precise, delicate accuracy. It is a touching, bittersweet insight into cultural dilemmas and the often harsh realities that come with juggling dreams and keeping your family afloat.
Whatever your takeaway, “Minari” delights with its measured motifs and enormously empathetic direction. And it boasts so much more than this too. The cinematography ensnares our senses with its vivacious use of colour and atmosphere. The writing twins with the direction to generate fly-on-the-wall effects for many of the film’s most riveting scenes, and the score by Emile Mosseri channels the same energy from his work on “The Last Man in San Francisco” (2019) to deliver something equal parts wonderful and melancholic.
Yet it is the actors that make “Minari” so absorbing. This is a terrific ensemble cast in which every actor works off of each other splendidly to create a captivating family drama. I’ve followed Steven Yeun’s career from his voice work as Avatar Wan in “The Legend of Korra” (2012-14) all the way up to “Burning” (2018), and this might be his best performance yet. It’s certainly his most intricate and humanistic. Han Ye-ri serves as Yeun’s equal with her titanic range, and both Cho and Kim give performances worthy of people twice their age. But my favorite performance and character was that of Youn Yuh-jung as Soon-ja, Monica’s mother who comes over from Korea to act as a childminder. Not only is she snarky, loving, and a hilarious rebuttal to Western concepts of grandmothers, but actor Youn’s chemistry with the cast, especially with wee Alan Kim, utterly radiates off the screen stealing every moment. She’s got my vote for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Then again, the Academy snubbed Zhao Shu-zhen for her lovable grandmother role in “The Farewell” last year, so here’s hoping I’m not jinxing anything.
“Minari” is a film that rides a spectrum of emotions and themes, and hits every one of them with precise, delicate accuracy. It is a touching, bittersweet insight into cultural dilemmas and the often harsh realities that come with juggling dreams and keeping your family afloat. Rarely has a film tackled domestic struggle with such unique vision or wisdom. The Golden Globes’ decision not to nominate it in the Best Motion Picture category is their loss, but selecting it as this festival’s first film is very much GFF’s gain. Opening features don’t get better than this!