Tom Crowley puts down roots.
Lee Isaac Chung has named his quasi- autobiographical film after an East Asia water plant, minari. Known for its resilience in growth and diversity of purpose, minari is an important staple in Korean cuisine. The film Minari, follows the trials and tribulations of a Korean family, who have moved to rural Arkansas, from California in 1983. Patriarch, Jacob (Yeun), has a dream to become self-sufficient and live off the ‘Fatta the lan’ as George Milton would say. His plan is to cultivate Korean vegetables for sale.
His wife, Monica (Ye-ri) is less than happy with the situation. She enjoyed her life in California. She was surrounded by people with a similar heritage to herself, and perhaps more importantly, they lived in an actual building. Their Arkansas abode is a mobile home, a detail which Jacob has seemingly forgotten to fill Monica in on. First and foremost, Minari is a family drama. We see Jacob and Monica’s fights mainly from the perspective of their two kids, David (Kim) and Anne (Cho). They plead with their parents to stop fighting with a refreshing innocence of the inner workings of adult life. Jacob and Monica were both chicken sexers in California. Monica continues this job on an Arkansas plant. Although skilled at his job, Jacob finds the work monotonous and unrewarding, so he works the land instead.
With both of them working, the Yis fly in Monica’s mother from the old country to help out with the kids. Soon-Ja (Yuh-Jung) becomes the beating heart of the film, especially in her relationship with David. David, who is around 10 years old, is not happy that he has to share a room with his Grandma. She also doesn’t fit into David’s idea of what a Grandmother should be- a cookie baker she is not. Most of the films’ funniest moments come from this relationship, but also from Soon-ja trying to come to terms with American culture. She sits on the floor, cross-legged and horrified as two wrestlers beat the hell out of each other on TV.
There are elements of an immigrant story here, but Chung chooses not to overstate them. The Yi family feel a sense of otherness, but it is not too oppressive. There is an instance when the Korean family is made to stand up in church, even though it is awkward for the Yis, the priest only wishes to welcome them to the parish. In a scene right after a boy asks David ‘Why is your face so flat?’ However, the two become friends, with the boy inviting David over to his house.
The film is interesting because it deals with different stages of cultural assimilation. Young David and his sister Anne are what you could call ‘second generation immigrants’, but you could also just call them Americans. They speak in English together, and Anne especially, is very mature and sure of herself. Their father is very much at the stage where he has assimilated, and now he wants something that is his own. He wants to create his own stamp on his surroundings. He is infinitely proud of his Korean heritage, which he passes onto his son. Soon-Ja’s spunky attitude allows her to embrace her otherness in this new world, but when tragedy strikes, this is taken away from her and leads to the film’s destructive climax.
Chung’s is a sweet film, and a lot of it’s tenderness is seen in the relationships within the family unit. The acting all round is honest and affecting. However, it may be a little thin on plot, and this is not always a bad thing. Minari has a missing ingredient that stops it from becoming a great film. It is a hopeful film, but also suffers from being too gratifying and neat.