minari sundance 2020

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Cast: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Youn Yuh Jung, Will Patton

“Minari,” it is revealed midway through the film, is a Korean water plant. An old Korean woman sows its seeds by an American pond, and informs her little grandson that the resulting Minari can be anything he wants it to be: a vegetable side as well as a seasoned rice ingredient, and even a herbal medicine. It also works as a peppery metaphor for the quintessential immigrant tale, where adaptive characters single-mindedly pursue independence and identity in a foreign land. But place it in context of this unfamiliar story of a familiar predicament, and Minari feels like a bit of a forbidden fruit.

The Yi family of four, led by hard-working parents Jacob and Monica, has just moved away from the West Californian coast to rural Arkansas to make the American dream a little more attainable. They’ve gone from water to dry land, all in the hope of being their own self-cultivated Minari. The kids, David and his older sister, are second-generation immigrants – American accents and Mountain Dew addictions intact – unlike their half-converted parents. The marriage is ripe with tension; Monica resents her husband for “downgrading” their dream and carting them from civilization to the middle of nowhere. Jacob (Burning’s Steven Yeun) wants to start a farm of authentic Korean crop so that Monica and he can quit their long-time manual jobs of chicken sexing.

What’s notable here is that he wants to use American soil to monetize his Asian roots. He wants his own culture to fund their future after finding the same culture too restrictive back in Korea. Worse, he’s moved a step down in the American ecosystem – from Western city to Southern town – ten years after landing from the East. This has always been the tragic irony of Westbound immigration, whether it’s the 1980s of Minari, the 1950s of Brooklyn or the 2000s of Cuties. People forget how to live in the mad dash to earn a living. They sacrifice harder than others and die faster than others to escape the mercy of others.

The self-defeating costs of self-sufficiency dawn upon some of these families. They realize that the line between freedom and independence is the same that separates survival from ambition. Some wonder: What is the point of flying your own plane if its altitude is compromised? Director Lee Isaac Chung crafts a playful, tender and hopelessly hopeful film about one such family. They struggle with their status, like their new home, being caught in no man’s land: it is neither a success story nor a cautionary tale. Monica prefers the stability of the city to the nothingness of the town. Jacob prefers the potential of nothingness to the limitations of everything. The film dots their narrative with the kind of elements that inform their identity crisis. The arrival of Monica’s eccentric old mother, for instance, is a reminder of the life they left behind. Not in a negative way though – she often mentions how the couple used to be in their early days, prompted by retro songs and nostalgic souvenirs.

By focusing on the pressures of marriage rather than the external factors that tend to concretize marriages, Minari becomes the heart of an immigrant narrative rather than its body.

“She smells Korean, she isn’t a real grandma,” little David complains, before the film frames their equation as a charming subversion of the traditionalism-vs-modernity narrative. Grandma isn’t a bitter and archaic stereotype; she in fact pokes fun at her own datedness by winning the trust of the youngest family member. Naivety and senility always go hand in hand. The circularity of age (Alan Arkin’s grandpa character in Little Miss Sunshine is little Abigail Breslin’s sanest voice) is a great leveller of dysfunctional setups.

Minari elegantly expresses the strife of displacement without resorting to the creation of villains and victims. Jacob resists religion and prayer, while Monica seems more likely to adopt the laws of the land. His right-hand man on the farm is a Jesus nut, but he’s also a kind man who simply represents the benign dangers of inbred mediocrity. The church crowd, too, is pleasant and welcoming, as is Jacob’s boss at work. All this puts the viewer in the position of having to question Jacob’s stubborn ways. Why doesn’t he just save some money instead? Why is he mean to these well-meaning locals? But Jacob’s battle is for a life that is unrecognisable until it appears. His journey itself is an obstacle. Somewhere along the line he, too, has gotten seduced by the aura of success instead of idea behind it.

By focusing on the pressures of marriage rather than the external factors that tend to concretize marriages, Minari becomes the heart of an immigrant narrative rather than its body. “What’s the point of all this if we live apart?” Monica asks her husband during one of their several spats. You want her to support his vision and risks by now, but the film, by ending as dramatically as it does, supports the bittersweet and difficult truth that blue-collar migrants in America are often faced with: Being together isn’t the same as being successful. Being is mutually exclusive to dreaming. People like Jacob are forced to choose between one or the other.

This truth may sound oppressive, but it does lay the foundation for David to grow up and render the colour of his collar redundant. It lays the foundation for filmmakers like Lee Isaac Chung to grow up and tell, as opposed to sell, the marriage stories hidden in plain sight.

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