Minari is a Korean-American film that, in its theme and in its reception, has questioned the very function of the hyphen between Korean and American. One of the gifts of the hyphenated identity is its assumption that identity isn’t a zero sum game — to be more Korean, doesn’t mean to be less American, and vice-versa. But that doesn’t seem to be the popular sentiment.
I think it is odd that the threshold of foreign-ness or American-ness should be based on mathematical precision in calculating the proportion of English words.
Minari’s reception has shown this blind-spot, where a film written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, an American, and produced by an American was submitted as a “foreign language” entry to the Golden Globes, given the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s rule that “any film with at least 50% of non-English dialogue goes into the foreign language category.” The argument against this rule has been that films like Inglorious Bastards and Babel were not considered under the “foreign language” despite being heavily non-English. I am not sure of the proportion of non-English dialogues in these films, but I think it is odd that the threshold of foreign-ness or American-ness should be based on mathematical precision in calculating the proportion of English words.
The film itself is soft in its telling, without the heavy hand of grueling monologues and passionate op-eds that this film elicited. A lot of the emotional heavyweight comes from the background score. The film begins with a lullaby-like ‘Rain Song’ performed by Han Ye-ri, setting right away the tone of melancholy, longing, pain, and above all else the spinal need of an immigrant — hope. Han Ye-ri also performs the role of the caring mother, the jilted wife, and the doting daughter in this film. Before the movie even begins the breeze-like song plays and you are already moved. The film merely keeps up this emotional momentum. This is a rough translation of the song:
“Lift your gaze as it departs to bid farewell to the season.
After a long wait in warmth, you and I sing a song.
As winter departs, the child greets the spring.
And takes a breath with the rest of the world to receive together the embrace of a new night.”
Set in the 1980s in Arkansas, this is a story of struggling Korean immigrant parents (Steven Yeun as Jacob and Han Ye-ri as Monica) who move from California with their two young kids, one of whom, David (Alan Kim) has a weak heart. Jacob wants to start a farm, and Monica just wants to stay afloat. Jacob wants his children to see what success looks like, and Monica wants her children to see their next meal, living with clean running water. This “hillbilly” lifestyle for her must be transient, but for him, it is a permanent fixture so they can live close to the farm he is digging out of the wild. It is the clash of passion and penury, one that is often in movies shown as an internal battle. But here it is embodied in two different characters, and the aftermath is marital distress.
They even have different relations to faith. When David wants to check his heartbeat, Monica places the stethoscope in his ears and as he is listening to his own heart pump, Monica reminds him, “Don’t forget to keep praying.” — to not forget that life is a miracle. When Jacob finally makes a friend who is willing to help out with his farm, the friend asks, “Can I pray?” to which Jacob responds, “Sorry?”. Prayer doesn’t even occur to Jacob as a possibility.
When things between the two come to a boil there is a sense that money would solve the problem. But Monica notes, quite poignantly, that when they married they promised to save each other. Now, unable to do that, how can they look to money? This is such a powerful moment, at once appreciative and dismissive of the power of money. For Monica, money is a means to be healthy, to be living, to be saved for the future. It is not, and should not, be seen as the glue that holds a family together. That must be love. The immigrant story in movies often mistakes the two, love for money, financial success for personal success. They are inextricably tied, and this film attempts to parse them apart, by issuing a corrective.
What it is also a corrective to is the grandmother figure (Youn Yuh-jung, playing Monica’s mother, the first Korean to win an Academy Award for acting). She comes in mid-way as the repetitive life in rural America begins to weigh heavy on the narrative. What’s missing from the film until then — spunk — is brought from across the ocean in truckloads. She cannot bake, she sits around watching television in men’s underwear, and she swears with a hearty laugh. When at church, the young kids ask why David cannot come for a sleepover she points at him and tells, “Broken ding-dong!” — he wets his bed. Her daughter is at once apologetic for bringing her back from the familiar and lonely life in Korea to an unfamiliar but demanding and bustling life in rural America. Monica tries to take refuge in the Church for a social life. While Christianity is about communion, the Church was about community. She needed both.
When the grandchildren are nasty the grandmother isn’t hurt, she takes it in her stride. When the grandmother is loving, the love isn’t cloying, but cementing. Minari is the plant that she grows by the creek, a fertile wasteland which the grandmother notices and flourishes. It’s an easy metaphor for the immigrant — to plant yourself wherever you can, to be flexible, to be flowering. It also makes no bones that this film’s central relationship is that of the grandmother with her grandson, mounted on a very invasive but very moving background score — an emotional manipulation you don’t mind being tricked into. The power of a musical score can be making you want to cry when all the characters are doing is walking.
The film, to its credit, however doesn’t take its metaphors, its Church, its flourishes too seriously. Life as an immigrant is lived on that delicate threshold of a world left behind and a world that remains to be unfolded. The film keeps its gaze rooted in the immigrant experience, which especially as parents, is built upon sacrifice. An understanding that they must be the trampoline and not the object being jettisoned into comfortable atmospheric success, and to be okay with that. Minari doesn’t need to labour this sacrifice too much, because it girds it with love and doubt instead.