The Yi family are Korean immigrants who have moved from California to a new plot of land in Arkansas. There, the father, Jacob, hopes to grow Korean produce to sell to vendors in Dallas, Texas. He and his wife Monica also work sexing chicks at a nearby hatchery to make ends meet. Because of the demanding nature of their jobs, they arrange for Monica’s mother, Soon-ja, to travel from South Korea to live with them and watch over their kids.
Minari is a story heavily inspired by Director Lee Isaac Chung’s upbringing. Much like the Yi family, his parents are from South Korea, and they ended up moving to a small farm in Lincoln, Arkansas after having previously lived in much larger cities such as Denver and Atlanta.
The rural landscape proves to be a radical departure from the Yi family’s former life in California. Their new house is roughly the size of a large trailer, and the weather is far less predictable, as a rainstorm causes water to drip from the ceiling within days of moving in. Nonetheless, the family’s patriarch, Jacob, is determined to till the soil and make a better life for his children.
Indeed, most of the strife that occurs between Jacob and Monica stems from their radically different opinions of their new home. Jacob is ecstatic about the farm – to the point where he focuses on it to the detriment of his family. His position is understandable, as he was making a pittance in California; the new farm is therefore a way for him to truly strike out on his own. Conversely, Monica only makes a token effort to hide the fact that she despises living in the country. As a result of political turmoil, the 1980s saw a large influx of Korean immigrants, which afforded people like Monica far more opportunities to make friends. On top of that, their son, David, suffers from a heart condition, and living in the country ensures the treatment he needs is quite a lengthy drive away. Being ripped away from her friends and having far fewer opportunities to make new ones places a gigantic strain on her and, by extension, their marriage.
In terms of subject matter, Minari has much in common with Lulu Wang’s The Farewell in how it centers on an Asian-American family. Despite this similarity, one could make the argument that Minari actually manages to be a light antithesis to The Farewell. Ms. Wang’s film was about a Chinese-American family traveling abroad to visit the protagonist’s grandmother upon hearing of her cancer diagnosis. Conversely, Minari could be said to begin in earnest once Soon-ja enters the story. In other words, while The Farewell primarily dealt with the subtle intricacies between cultures in the family’s native homeland, Minari brings them to the United States.
In this case, Soon-ja brings a piece of South Korean culture with her in the form of minari seeds, which she plants in the creek near the farm. The titular minari seeds are a clear allegory for the Yi family themselves. The Yi family come from abroad, thereby planting their roots in a new home. They keep all of the experiences they had in South Korea, and bring them to an entirely new context – just like every other immigrant family.
In her first scenes, it becomes evident that Soon-ja is about as far away from a traditional grandmother figure as one can get. She curses, teaches her grandchildren to gamble, watches wrestling, and isn’t an especially great cook. Even so, she has a good nature and loves her grandchildren dearly. David’s interactions with her are interesting because it demonstrates that, having been born in the United States, his expectations of what a grandmother should be are more in line with contemporary Western sensibilities. Seeing him move past that and accept his grandmother for who she is makes for some of the best scenes in the film.
I find the Yi family’s interactions with the locals to be rather interesting as well. Jacob pointedly refuses to hire a water diviner, opting to dig a well on his own. From there, he enlists the help of an eccentric, religious man named Paul. The portrayal of these people winds up defying the expectations most people would have going into a film such as this. A typical story about immigrants delves into the discrimination they would face by the natives while Minari doesn’t exactly go that route – at least not overtly. Jacob’s meager earnings in California is likely a commentary on how little companies pay immigrants, and his ultimate frustrations stem from never being able to rise through the ranks. However, that’s more of a commentary of the system’s flaws than anything.
When it comes to portraying individuals, the film gives the Arkansans a fair shake. The kids say some rather insensitive things to David and his sister, Anne, with one girl babbling gibberish until she says a Korean word and a boy commenting on the former’s supposedly flat face. In a bit of a twist, the girl is genuinely excited when she learns a Korean word and the boy eventually becomes friends with David, inviting him for a sleepover. Jacob even later relents and employs the water diviner, effectively resolving the cultural clash by blending them.
As is the case in reality, life ends up throwing several curveballs the Yi family’s way. Soon-ja suffers a stroke that leaves her addled. After a trip to the doctor, Jacob is able to strike a deal with a new Korean grocer after the original one fell through. Unfortunately, in doing so, he indirectly admits that the farm is more important to him than his family’s stability. This argument is prematurely ended once they return to a burning barn. In her impaired state, Soon-ja accidently set fire to their harvested crops. The following morning, Jacob and David harvest the minari Soon-ja had planted. It turns out to have been the perfect place for them.
Although Minari does succeed in many ways, I have to say this ending isn’t so great. Minari doesn’t really end as much as it comes to a dead stop. A24 films are usually known for their shoestring budgets, which directors got around in various ways such as having small, amateur casts or relying solely on practical effects. However, in this particular case, it’s easy to get the sense that the abrupt ending represented the exact moment the film ran out of money. Endings like this can work in a pure slice-of-life feature because it’s a tacit way of saying “life goes on”. It doesn’t work as well in Minari because it had done such a great job fleshing out various aspects of the Yi family’s lives, so for it to end on such an ambiguous note comes across as lazy more than anything.
Minari is intended to be a very loose autobiographical tale with events such as Mr. Chung’s grandmother burning down the farm having occurred in real life. It does make the development less convoluted knowing it is based in reality; otherwise, I would have seriously questioned the wisdom of leaving somebody in such a state home alone.
The problem is that this is something the viewer needs to know and actively remind themselves of. We’re supposed to take for granted that, despite these setbacks, Mr. Chung’s family was able to keep it together long enough for them to make a living in the United States, which would eventually result in him going to film school, hence Minari. It’s not good storytelling to make your audience resort to outside materials to make sense of a narrative; in fact, the film doesn’t compensate for this by including a blurb regarding the fates of each person. So, while I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the ending of Minari is bad, it does somewhat diminish the goodwill it had done an excellent job establishing up until that point.
Minari doesn’t quite ascend to the same artistic heights as The Farewell, but it is a decent effort in its own right. Much like The Farewell, Minari succeeds by virtue of being written by someone who brings an interesting perspective to the table. As a common perception is that immigrant families gravitate towards the urban areas, Mr. Chung’s having moved to a rural area to start a farm is quite notable. He took everything he experienced growing up, and successfully channeled that energy into this film. In spite of its execution issues, Minari represents the kind of standard that more filmmakers – particularly independent ones – should strive for.
Final Score: 6.5/10