Monday, May 10, 2021

"Minari": review

[WARNING:  Spoilers.]

Released in January 2020 at the Sundance Festival, then released to the general public earlier this year, "Minari" is a film directed by Lee Isaac Chung and is, to some extent, a reflection of Chung's own life.  It stars Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung (who won an Oscar for her role), Will Patton, Scott Haze, and Jacob Wade.  It is the story of an immigrant Korean family who have moved from California to Arkansas in search of a better life through farming.  

The film's plot, such as it is, can be summarized in a paragraph:  Jacob Yi (Yeun), a chicken-sexer by trade, has dreams of becoming a vegetable farmer who caters to fellow Korean immigrants by growing and selling Korean vegetables that will benefit from the rich Arkansan soil.  Jacob's wife Monica (Han) has no faith that this effort will pan out, and she views the proceedings with tight-lipped disapproval.  Partially to relieve her own stress and to make sure her children are watched over, Monica has her mother Soon-ja (Youn) come to the States from Korea.  Monica's son David (Kim) takes an immediate dislike to Soon-ja, who "smells like Korea," swears, and is unable to do any of the things that David—who is thoroughly Americanized—thinks a proper grandmother should do, like bake cookies for the kids.  David's big sister Anne does what she can to look after David, who has a heart condition that prevents him from exerting himself too much.  A friendly, eccentric American neighbor who is also a charismatic Christian, Paul (Patton), helps Jacob with the farm, and the rest of the film deals with how the family members interact with each other, whether the farm can succeed, and how everyone handles sudden crises.

As stories go, this is a slow, plodding, deliberate one, but the deliberateness works.  The lush cinematography effectively evokes 1980s-era rural Arkansas—the big sky, the farmland, the moist furrows in the ground, the nearby trees and streams.  Oklahoma apparently doubled for Arkansas (filming was in the Tulsa area), but for the purposes of this story, it makes for a decent double—at least to us non-Arkansans with little knowledge of that part of the country.

The film also gently and humorously approaches the issue of how Korean newbies deal with their white neighbors.  Paul is a hard worker, but he's also liable to break into loud prayer, speak in tongues (a sure sign of charismatic Christianity), and make pronouncements based on no evidence but his own idiosyncratic faith.  Jacob sometimes isn't sure how to deal with Paul, but they make for a companionable duo.  Later in the film, when the Korean family decides to attend a service at a non-Korean church, Soon-ja crassly observes that almost all the adults are fat.  A white kid (Wade) comes up to David and asks, with the rudeness of children everywhere, "Why is your face so flat?"  David can only lamely respond, "It's not."

I think director Chung has tried his best to avoid overt caricature in his portrayal of the local white folks.  Paul the charismatic might have his quirks, but he is shown to be a hard worker who takes a sincere liking to the Yi family.  There's a moment in the film in which the church bus passes Paul on a long road.  The kids in the bus sneer at Paul, who is carrying/dragging a huge wooden cross, Simon of Cyrene-style, as an expression of his faith.  "I heard he shits in a bucket," one kid jeers.  Paul, unaware of the kids' scorn, simply smiles and waves as the church bus passes.  The moment builds sympathy for Paul; a man doing his Christian duty doesn't seem like such a crazy thing out there in the sticks.  When we meet the laity at the church that the Yi family goes to, the story doesn't lay it on thick, making the people out to be nutty Jesus freaks.  Instead, what we see is just folks.  I appreciated Chung's sense of balance in trying to portray life from an immigrant's perspective.  He didn't succumb to the temptation to go a more comedic or parodic route.

So despite the slow, simple plot, the film contains plenty of depth:  still waters run deep.  The camera lingers on certain visuals, allowing us to drink in the progress of Jacob's crops, or the interminable reality of chicken-sexing at a local facility, or the quiet terror of the kids when their parents are loudly fighting about the family's future.  Soon-ja goes to the nearby creek with David, and she plants minari—a kind of dropwort—at a promising spot in the hopes that it will take root and grow plentifully.

Life can't be easy when English isn't your first language.  Jacob and Monica do speak enough English to get by; their kids are English-fluent, but Soon-ja knows only a few random words—enough to get her in hilarious trouble on at least one occasion when she tries to tell an American kid that David can't stay overnight at his house because David is a bed-wetter.  "Ding-dong broken!" she loudly declares, leaving David mortified because he was the one who had taught Soon-ja to say "ding-dong" instead of "penis."

The film concentrates on the intra-family dynamic.  Soon-ja may be loud and obnoxious in the stereotypical tradition of Korean women who no longer give a damn about social niceties, but she is also the one most likely to act as a peacemaker, or to contradict her daughter Monica's overprotective impulses when it comes to shielding David from the dangers of over-exertion.  Monica, by contrast, is the primary source of most of the familial tension because she's the one who thinks moving to Arkansas was a terrible idea.  Monica spends very little time looking happy; we mostly see her with furrowed brows and a troubled mien.  Jacob, meanwhile, is constantly tired but quietly hopeful.  He tries to dig a well to obtain free water for his crops so that he doesn't have to pay for county water; when his well dries up, it merely confirms Monica's suspicions that the entire effort is destined to end badly, and she mentally links the failure of the farm with the potential collapse of her marriage to Jacob.  All Jacob wants, meanwhile, is a little faith and positivity from Monica, but most of the faith and positivity come from Paul—a fact that Jacob might find discomfiting.  The story leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Monica is being unnecessarily pessimistic or merely realistic.

Some moments in the plot play out like isolated vignettes, such as when David pulls a nasty prank on his grandmother by urinating into a teacup and leaving it for her to drink.  He waits around long enough to see his grandmother sip at the cup, and right as she starts sputtering and yelling, he giggles and bolts out of the family home.  Later on, Jacob sternly demands that David go out and fetch a stick to use as a switch for spanking; Soon-ja protests that David shouldn't be punished.  David, meanwhile, returns with a reedy, broken twig, causing Soon-ja to laugh and declare that David has won the contest between him and his father.  (I admit I probably would've thrashed the boy, heart problem or not, for disrespecting his grandmother in such a vulgar way.)

The family home itself makes for an interesting topic.  It's a simple trailer, such as what you'd find in a typical trailer park.  Early on, director Chung uses the home as a clever indicator of the passage of time:  when the family first arrives at the property and sees the trailer sitting there, the kids are delighted to see the trailer has wheels.  With the home seated high above the ground, Jacob and Monica have to lever themselves up at first to get in the door, but as time goes on, we see a set of boxes that function as makeshift stairs, then actual stairs leading up to the trailer's main door.

These are all simple things—little and mundane.  But the movie also gives us a few crises.  First is the crisis of Jacob and Monica's increasingly fragile marriage.  Monica sees Jacob as prioritizing the farm over the family while Jacob sees the farm as the thing that will provide the family its security.  But two other crises arrive in rapid succession:  Soon-ja has a stroke, and while she's recovering, she accidentally sets the barn storing the farm's vegetables on fire.  Miserable and guilty, Soon-ja shambles away from the farm into the night, but it's David—with his weak heart—who gains the courage to sprint after his grandmother.  Along with his sister Anne, David turns Soon-ja back to the homestead.  Meanwhile, Jacob and Monica desperately try to rescue what vegetables they can, but it's a lost cause:  even the vegetables untouched by the flames have been cooked by the fire's heat.  In the end, having lost each other in the growing blaze, Jacob and Monica find each other and pull each other out of the barn, thus fulfilling a mutual promise the two had made back when they'd arrived in California:  that one day, they would save each other.  This is a spooky, prophecy-fulfilling moment that blends nicely into the Christian background of the Arkansan countryside.

The story ends quietly, with many loose ends left unaddressed.  In the aftermath of the fire, we see Jacob and Monica walking with a water-witcher—Jacob had earlier rejected the use of dowsing as a way to find water—and we also see Jacob and David at the creek where Soon-ja had planted her minari.  The plants have grown plentifully, and Jacob tells David that Grandma had found an excellent spot.  With that, he begins harvesting the full-grown plants, and that's how the story ends.

For such a slow film, the ending feels almost hasty.  I was left with several questions and quibbles.  What has become of Soon-ja in the aftermath of the fire?  Crippled by her stroke, she is no longer a caretaker for the kids, but has become someone requiring care.  What of the family's financial condition?  Much of the plot is devoted to showing how, at almost every step, the family has dug itself ever deeper into debt.  The film ends on a note of hope, of course, so maybe we're supposed to assume that everything will end positively, but this isn't obvious, especially with Soon-ja needing extra care.  It's safe to assume that the disaster of the barn fire has brought Jacob and Monica closer together, but Monica's presence near the water-witcher, at the end of the film, also shows that she now actively supports Jacob's efforts at farming.  How did this turnaround happen?  More time should have been spent examining that question.  As for quibbles, I found it ironic that the film's title is minari, but we never once see the plant up close.  I also felt that the in-law relationship between Jacob and Soon-ja isn't developed as deeply as it could have been; their one true interaction is during the scene when Jacob wants to spank David.  This seems like a missed opportunity, especially in a film that pays close attention to how the family members interact with each other.  Come to think of it, poor little Anne, David's big sister, isn't given much to do; it's obvious that she's the hyo-nyeo, i.e., the filial daughter who acts in a dutiful way, but while the film focuses so much on David, there's disturbingly little focus on Anne.  She ends up being a fifth wheel to the plot.

A humorous thought did burble to the surface of my mind as I was watching "Minari," though:  this film serves as a good introduction to Korean TV dramas:  the screaming and yelling, the tears, the sad and tragic sensibility.  The Korean self-conception—or, to borrow from postmodernism, the Korean metanarrative—is that Koreans are bounded by and victims of strife-filled circumstance.  There's no easy way out of one's miserable situation, and everything requires hard effort.  But this is not a per ardua ad astra dynamic:  in the Korean way of thinking, arduous effort doesn't lead to the stars; it leads only to more misery.  Koreans who've grown up in the States can't be expected to understand the hardship endured by older generations who went through the Korean War (my own mother was a Korean War survivor, having lived a refugee's life at one point), so there is something of a generation gap.  However, when it comes to the TV dramas, the sadness and hopelessness of the previous generation somehow always leaches into the consciousness of the younger generation.  Far from being like forward-thinking, future-oriented Americans, young Koreans find themselves saddled with their own allotment of misery, which is why the current generation bemoans Korea as a sort of "Hell Joseon."  Instead of focusing on the many accomplishments of several generations of hard-working citizens, Koreans seem almost to cherish their misery, perhaps because it helps them make sense of the cosmos.  "Minari" makes sure to lace its narrative with elements of that metanarrative, and so we get tears, marital strife, crippling debt, a stroke, and a burning barn.  If I sound as if I'm complaining, well, I suppose I am.  My problem isn't with whether there's any truth to the metanarrative; I fully grant that older Koreans have every right to resonate with past misery resulting from a devastating war.  My problem with "Minari" is that it's simply carrying along the same tropes as can be found on Korean TV.  When misery is commodified as a trope, it touches the heart far less, and when I watched "Minari," there were moments when I felt I could identify these tropes, like a food taster analyzing the ingredients of an overly familiar dish for the umpteenth time.

The end result is that I didn't come away from the film as blown away by it as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was.  If anything, I felt the way I feel whenever non-Koreans "discover" Korean food.  "Wow—so new!  So exotic!" they coo.  But for me, having grown up with Korean food, it's just plain old food to me.

To be clear, I think "Minari" is a very well-made film, with a splendid cast of talented actors.  As I've written above, I also think it gets a lot right in terms of its careful, balanced portrayal of immigrant life in 1980s Arkansas.  It doesn't preach or over-politicize; it's not meant to be a jeremiad about the sacrality of immigrants.  The story is simple and stripped down, and overall, that's a good thing.  My complaints have to do with the porting-in of old, familiar tropes that anyone who has endured screamy, weepy Korean TV dramas has already seen in spades.  I realize that, in saying this, I risk sounding like the pampered fool from a younger generation who doesn't understand the history of misery and hardship that so influences Korean drama.  I'll take that risk.  I think Koreans can afford to be more forward-looking, these days, and far less tragic in their outlook.  The country is prosperous and strong, both monetarily and militarily.  True, it's dealing with the highest suicide rate among the OECD countries, but again, this is the result of the constant retreat toward a tragic metanarrative.  Why not be more like France, which suffered under Hitler's boot but is now prosperous and generally mentally healthy?  I'm not saying that Korean or Korean-American filmmakers should forever stop focusing on Korea's tragic history, but they ought to think about focusing on the more positive aspects of modern Korea.  It's not all shouting and tears.

So—"Minari."  To recommend, or not to recommend?  I recommend it, advisedly, but I also think your mileage may vary.  Of the various "Asian experience" films I've seen over the years, e.g., "The Farewell," "Crazy Rich Asians," "The Joy Luck Club," etc., "Minari" didn't touch me as deeply as I'd thought it might.  "The Joy Luck Club" affected me more deeply.  You, Dear Reader, might come away with a very different impression, and that's fine.

ADDENDUM:  I've heard and read certain Korean-fluent critics' remarks about Steven Yeun's gyopo accent.  Yeun was born in Seoul but grew up in Canada and the States from the age of five; he isn't a natively fluent speaker of Korean, and I could hear the gyopo-ness of his speech myself (to be sure, he speaks Korean a hell of a lot better than I do!).  In the end, my assumption was that the character he's playing is supposed to be a fresh-off-the-boat Korean, so I went along with that.  Some critics think that Yeun's gyopo accent is actually relevant to the story, making the character of Jacob somehow "less" of an immigrant than Monica (who is obviously Korean through and through).  That doesn't make sense to me, especially given the nature of the husband-wife dialogue throughout the film.  There's no mention by Jacob that he had somehow gotten to America first and lived there long enough to lose his native Korean accent.  Adding that information to the plot would've been, frankly, weird.


  1. Another excellent review. I hadn't even heard of this film until the Oscars. Now I have a much better understanding of what the movie is all about. Thanks for that!

    I wonder how much your unique perceptions as a Korean-American influenced your feelings towards the film? I'm sure it was directed at the standard audience who would have no clue about the "Hell Joseon" attitudes you mention. During my time in Korea, one of the things that astounded me was the negative attitude of young people (well, young women) who wanted nothing more than to escape what they saw as the confining nature of Korean society. "I want to go live where I can be who I am, not what I'm supposed to be," was something I heard more than once.

    I'd see the film just for that 1980's Arkansas vibe you mention. I lived in western Arkansas (Fort Smith) and eastern Oklahoma (Poteau) during the 80s. And yes, filming near Tulsa would be almost indistinguishable from neighboring Arkansas. The geography doesn't really change until you move further east towards Little Rock.

    Your review also reminded me of my experience as an outsider in Arkansas (A Californian who arrived via Arizona). The cultural differences were shocking and I had to learn the local language--"I'm fixin' to go to the store, can I carry you there?" is one example that comes to mind. One of my co-workers was shocked that I had voluntarily transferred there (I was a letter carrier) and told me: "You know why Arkansas is like heaven? Nobody immigrates here." I was definitely an outsider who talked funny and I spent a lonely first year. But once the locals decided that I was "alright," I started getting invited along on river canoeing trips, joined a softball team, met some wild women, and came to really enjoy living the southern lifestyle.

    It sounds like Minari captures some of that. I'd give it a watch for that reason alone.

  2. It's a visually beautiful film, for sure. I think you'll enjoy it (now that I've spoiled the plot for you).

    I'm sure my particular perspective influenced my experience of the film. I feel as if my review falls into the "state your unpopular opinion" category, but I had to be honest about where I thought the film fell short.



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