dir: Lee Isaac Chung
The Immigrant Song. It’s an old tale, told very differently, country to country. Especially when it’s Led Zeppelin, which is I guess about singing about Vikings or something?
Anyway, Minari is a version of the immigrant story, the ‘new’ American version of that story told more with an eye towards depicting a family’s remembrances growing up, rather than talking up the American Dream.
The American Dream had long asserted that if the tired, the hungry, the poor huddled masses of the world’s wretched refuse just got to the country’s shores, and worked monstrously hard for less than minimum wage for several decades, not only would they eventually prosper, but they would get so successful their kids would grow up pudgy, lazy and entitled. In recent years that’s changed to “fuck off we’re closed”, build this wall, build that wall, buy more guns, dying on the job for peanuts is noble, and the virus isn’t real.
This story is unusual in that it’s not about the success that comes from working hard, taking risks, having good luck but grit and determination as well. It’s not a parable or a cautionary tale. It’s the story of a person born into a Korean-American family in California, and the family moves to rural Arkansas because of the father’s dream of a more meaningful life.
I have no doubt that, over the long term, the family survived and thrived, through hard work and sacrifice and all of that, because the little boy depicted here clearly grew up to become the person who wrote and directed this movie, since while it’s semi-autobiographical it’s also clearly, deeply personal. Plus the “David” here went on to study biology at Yale, but chose not to enter medicine and instead became a film director.
That must have taken a lot of hard work, on everyone’s part. But that is not what the flick is about, almost perversely. You can imagine producers, or studio people, hearing early versions of the script saying “yeah, well, you’d get more arses on seats if we can sell it as ‘hard-working immigrants deal with racism and eventually shut up their detractors by opening franchise Korean barbecue company and swimming in pools of money’, don’t you think?”
Because this flick is from the perspective of the family’s youngest member, the immigrant struggle and yearning for success and credibility means little compared to the a) restrictions David lives under because of problems with his heart, and more importantly b) the incredible stress the family was under as the father tried to achieve his goals while they lived like trolls under a bridge.
Wanting to succeed at something is obviously a good thing, depending on how much you sacrifice along the way. Ethically speaking getting your way to achieve your goals by any means necessary isn’t a be all end all justification. This film does not have villains, but it does point to the tension within the family arising because the father (phenomenal Steve Yuen, best known for playing Glenn on Walking Dead, but just as good if not better in whole bunches of flicks) needs to succeed at farming without consideration of the costs to all the people around him.
He is called Jacob in the flick (most of it is in Korean, despite it being set in 1980s Arkansas), and his wife is called Monica (Han Ye-ri), but they moved to the States some time after the Korean war, presumably. They have worked low-paid jobs in California, had two kids, and now Jacob has moved them not only to another state, but a remote part of that state, far from the medical facilities David might need for his heart problems.
No consultation was entered into, no mention made that they were moving to a large block of land with what I think is called a “double-wide”, a type of mobile home on site. Jacob is entranced by the colour of the soil, which he shows to his wife, expecting it to be convincing to her as well.
His dream is to give up having to work for The Man, and being a farmer, producing niche vegetables for the other Korean immigrants that move to the States, rather than producing vegetables with broader American appeal. At first I thought “that’s a bad idea, restricting your market like that, because how many Koreans are there going to be in Arkansas in the 1980s?” But then I remember Americans hate vegetables, so he was probably onto a good thing at the time.
Jacob is an intelligent man, but low-key arrogant. A water diviner tells him he’ll find him the best location for a well, but it’s going to cost him $300. Jacob cheaps out and decides he’ll figure it out himself, because he’s an intelligent man. So he logics his way into finding the best spot.
He progressively gets into more debt, which only makes him more determined to keep trying until he has succeeded in the eyes of his family, his wife and kids and the neighbours, even if it drives his family away because they need to eat food and drink water in the interim. He has clearly never heard of the sunk cost fallacy.
Despite being dictatorial, he recognises that this is taking a toll on his wife, who is isolated not only by being a Korean immigrant in the middle of Buttfuck, Arkansas, but being a person who needs community, and also the church, in her life.
People who don’t know much about Korean culture, or who haven’t watched a lot of Korean cinema at least, could be a bit shocked to find out as to how big Jesus is in South Korea and among the Korean diaspora. Christianity plays a big part in the flick as well, but not from the perspective of what happens, or how it felt for this family at that time. The church is very welcoming to the Yi family, and so are the locals. Almost suspiciously so. This is surprisingly not a flick about racism, and people learning to accept people and work together and all that bullshit. All the ‘white’ Americans are more supportive, welcoming and helpful to the Yi family than the other Korean-Americans in the neighbourhood. And there’s not a single Confederate flag to be seen anywhere, for love or money.
A local lunatic who happens to be a veteran on the American side of the Korean War, thinks it is God’s plan that he work for Jacob on his farm, and, in between carrying an actual cross, speaking in tongues, and conducting exorcisms on the fly, Paul (Will Paton) does plenty to support Jacob. Jacob is freaked out by the religious stuff, but welcomes the help all the same, because no-one else is volunteering.
Monica brings her mother out from South Korea to help with the kids so that she and Jacob can work at the chicken factory, and she is an amazing character played by an amazing actress. Grannie Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) is a breath of fresh air who is way cooler than that grandmother could ever have possibly been. David is appalled and horrified by her because she smells Korean and she doesn’t fit his idea of what a Korean grannie must be like.
Let me remind you, David is a tiny 8-year-old boy with a heart problem. Every time he tries to run someone is there to tell him not to, because he’s not meant to over-exert himself, and they fear he might drop dead at any moment. Grannie doesn’t care. Even if he doesn’t like her, she tells him to run, that he has to, that he’s stronger than other people know. She teaches him a card game, curses out the cards and her opponents at a moment’s notice. She watches wrestling on the telly and thinks it’s real.
She brings with her a bunch of stuff she smuggled into the country. Now this scene made me laugh ecstatically, because it also shows how lax food quarantine / customs must have been in the 1980s. Out of her suitcase she pulls a huge plastic bag, and Monica says with joy “Gochujang!” which she clearly hasn’t been able to get in the States since moving there. The subtitles read “chili paste”, but I know about three words in Korean, and one of them is gochujang. We use it in our cooking, because it’s great, and it brought a smile to my face to see how happy it made Monica to finally be in possession of this delicious fermented staple once again.
She also brought a bunch of seeds with her, being the seeds of the title of the movie: Minari. It grows anywhere, don’t you know, easily, without complaining, without requiring tending, without asking for anything. It’ll thrive anywhere. You know, just like a hard-working Korean-American family.
It would be wrong to say that David bonds with his grandma. She persists in getting him to come around to her way of thinking, but, when he’s compelled to drink some kind of poisonous tasting traditional remedy tonic that even has ground reindeer horn in it, he gets revenge on her in the grossest way possible, by producing his own foul concoction that he tricks her into drinking.
Grannie being around is a buffer to protect the kids from the increasing tension in the marriage – things keep looking grimmer, Jacob keeps seeming prepared to sacrifice his family to the gods of crop harvest and financial success, and Monica wonders how this cognitive dissonance can persist. He keeps putting more importance on being able to finally say, at some point, “I succeeded at something”, even if there’s no-one left around to see it. He openly says he’d accept their marriage falling apart if it means he persists but somehow achieves something that makes him look like a success in the eyes of his children.
This idea is so bizarrely literalised when he’s trying to set up a buyer for his produce, at the same time as they travel to hospital to hear what they think is grim news about David’s condition, Jacob brings in a big, awkward box in order to keep it out of the sun. When David’s results are significantly different from what they thought they would be, Jacob’s shrugs and is like “huh.”
When he speaks to a Korean market owner and gets an agreement to be his supplier, he’s like “YES! This is the single greatest moment of my life!”
It’s… hard to take. Quite often the ‘mum’ character in these kinds of dramas is unfairly portrayed as overly cautious or unsupportive of a visionary, determined entrepreneur husband, but Monica isn’t the one so conclusively dropping the ball here. Jacob’s character is a study in masculine identity, certainly not unique to Korean culture, which prizes some outward signifier of aspirational success above the health, safety and well-being of the people around you. It’s a lot to confront, and fate makes its own decisions as to what does and doesn’t matter, and what eternal rewards are due someone happy to sacrifice their own family. And it’s not for me to hand out labels and flaws and such, but come on, if Jacob has one sin that makes everything worse, it’s arrogant pride, which almost brings them all undone in the end.
And yet, after catastrophe, the implication from two things: how much the minari is thriving where grannie planted it along the creek, and Jacob agreeing to get the water diviner in to find the right spot, is a statement of continuance and persistence, and an admission of being wrong, being arrogant in the face of nature, and that there can be a future after that.
The central, naturalistic performances are great. The father, the mum, grannie especially and David. It feels unfair that David has an elder sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho), who doesn’t really get to do much other than be around, but she doesn’t get to feel like as much of a real character as the others do. David we learn far more about that we would like, and the tensions with the parents are painful but relatable.
Grannie towers over them all. She brings a much needed warmth to the film and to a character more complex than one usually expects with that role, where she’s expected to be a baking goddess and dispenser of hash truths and common sense plain speakin’. She’s none of that here, but she is still so painfully loveable. What happens with her breaks my heart into millions of shards, and I wish so much that…
It’s a beautiful looking film, too, which resists the impulse to have people walking through fields of wheat with their hands outstretched, but keeps the imagery evocative without looking like a sequence of postcard shots. Though, truth be told, most of the story being told happens within the confines of the house, and that is not a pretty set to film things within. It also has a complementary, sublimely simple soundtrack by Emile Mosseri which I really enjoyed and have listened to a bunch of times since watching this.
In contrast to a lot of the films I review, this is a flick I’m eagerly looking forward to watching again. There’s so much going on here, so much of it so unique and personal to David / Lee , but still so human.
8 times how many films have you seen where a grandmother makes fun of her grandson’s dick out of 10
“Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds. So anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari can be put in kimchi, put in stew, put in soup. It can be medicine if you are sick. Minari is wonderful, wonderful!” – no, YOU’RE wonderful, grandma - Minari