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'Minari' and the Korean-American dream

Lee Isaac Chung's semi-autobiographical film, up for six Oscars including Best Picture, expands the ambit of the immigrant narrative in Hollywood

A still from 'Minari'
A still from 'Minari'

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It’s been a muted run-up to the Oscars, a minor but happy by-product of a tumultuous time. The biggest beneficiary of this seems to have been Nomadland, which, after its wins at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes, is the clear frontrunner at the Oscars. There is much to admire in Chloé Zhao’s film, especially Frances McDormand’s lead turn, but I wish some of the attention it’s getting would be directed towards another quiet (and, to my mind, superior) Best Picture Oscar contender.

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari premiered at the 2020 Sundance film festival, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. It’s the story of a first-generation Korean immigrant couple, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri), who move from California to rural Arkansas with their two children, six-year-old David (Alan Kim) and his older sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho). They find work as chicken sexers—a job Chung’s own father did—and Jacob uses his free time to start a farm, where he plans to grow Korean vegetables. Monica is less enthused about their moving to the middle of nowhere, living in a (stationary) house on wheels, an hour away from a hospital if David’s heart murmur acts up. In one of the early scenes, Jacob digs up a bit of earth and tells his wife it’s why he picked the place. “Because of the dirt colour?” Monica asks incredulously.

After a near miss with a tornado and a big fight (the kids fly in conciliatory paper planes from the other room), the couple decide to invite Monica’s mother in Korea to stay with them. And so the irrepressible Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) enters their lives—much to David’s disgust, who has to share his room and drink a herbal concoction she makes every day. She isn’t anything like his idea of a grandmother; she can’t bake, plays cards and swears. But she’s hardy and resourceful—when she describes the unfussy, adaptable minari plant, she could be talking about herself.

The second time I watched Minari, it occurred me how masterfully constructed Chung’s screenplay is. Little details acquire significance through repetition: the warnings of “Don’t run, David”; the burning of garbage every evening; even the drinking of Mountain Dew. Monica’s deadpan assessment of the new home (“It gets worse and worse”) in Korean is later echoed by her daughter saying, in English, “This just gets better and better.” There’s also a subtle reversal of Hollywood’s tendency to play up the foreignness of immigrant customs. The Yis are regular churchgoers, while Jacob’s helper on the farm, Paul (Will Patton), is a cross-lugging, parable-spouting eccentric. The locals use water diviners; Koreans, Jacob insists, "use their heads". There's also a clear break from the majority of immigrant stories, which tend to focus on problems of assimilation. Minari is more interested in the Yis as individuals and as a family, not representatives of a community narrative.

Like Nomadland, Minari takes its cue from its stubborn protagonist. Jacob is a dreamer—his drive to make the farm a success despite all the setbacks has as much to do with his self-worth as it does with his family (“They need to see me succeed at something for once,” he tells Monica). It’s fascinating to see Yeun, so charismatic in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018), play a character with limited charm and a lot of doggedness. There’s a bit of Daniel Plainview in Jacob—except here there’s an equally determined opposite number in Monica. Both Han Ye-ri and Yeun are wonderful: there’s a believability to their fights and their compromises, a relationship past the first flush of love but with great depth of feeling.

Minari’s director is American (the film is loosely based on his experiences growing up), the production company is Plan B and the distributor is A24. Yet, it feels like a foreign film: at least half the dialogue is in Korean, and—Sundance origins notwithstanding—it doesn’t have the rhythms of a Hollywood indie. It’s closer to the work of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda—it shares his preoccupation with imperfect families, the interior lives of children, flawed fathers and boisterous grandmas. Minari isn’t always fluent: there’s a tendency to throw to Alan Kim (undeniably a charmer) once every few scenes, and the Arkansas residents are painted in the kind of broad strokes that would have been offensive had it been the other way round. But in its quiet way, it expands the ambit of the immigrant film in America. has it at 16/1 to win best film at the Oscars, with Nomadland at 4/1. I know those aren’t great odds, but imagine the scenes—the absolute scenes!—if a Korean-language film wins Best Picture two years in a row.

Also read: Parasite’, the Oscars and one-inch barriers

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