Minari (미나리)

Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Writer: Lee Isaac Chung
Cast: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Youn Yeo-jeong, Noel Kate Cho, Will Patton

The subject of immigration is one that is constantly relevant and portrayed in multiple ways through films. Most films that tackle the subject usually revolve around someone/a family trying to fit in amongst people of a different culture and/or race in a country they don’t know much about except that it’s supposed to provide better opportunities and a better life than they’ve experienced in their home country. They often face a lot of challenges, such as prejudice, abuse and exploitation. Chung’s semi-autobiographical Minari sees the Yi family, originally from South Korea, move from California, where they had already settled into American life, to Arkansas, in pursuit of the patriarch of the family’s dreams. They understand how America operates, they’ve learned a decent amount of English, the children are making friends and they seem to fit in easily (perhaps more easily done when there’s already a small community of Koreans in the town in which they settle). But what happens when, after the seemingly hardest part of immigration has passed, the pursuit of the “American Dream” proves to be the hardest part of all?

In 1983, the Yi family move from California to rural Arkansas. Patriarch Jacob (Yeun) has a dream to start a farm growing Korean produce to sell to local markets, believing it will be a successful venture that will provide more financial security for his family. His wife, Monica (Han), is highly sceptical of Jacob’s vision, even more so when he hires the local town eccentric, a Korean War veteran named Paul (Patton), and she believes he desires the farm and making money more than he cares for his family. Their young children, daughter Anne (Cho) and son David (Kim), who himself has a heart problem, have adapted well (perhaps too well) to American life, so much so that David is disappointed when Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn), arrives from South Korea to help look after the kids, as she’s not a “real Grandma”, i.e. an all-American, cookie-baking, non-swearing, polite old lady. As Jacob tries to get the farm thriving and his relationship with Monica in-tact, David and Anne have to learn to build a relationship with the stout but loving Soon-ja.

Chung has reportedly said that he was influenced to make Minari after reading “My Antonia”, an autobiographical novel by Willa Cather, and understanding just what she meant when she said, “Life began for me, when I ceased to admire and began to remember”, meaning she stopped imitating the works of others who were successful and began to write about her own experiences. It is clear through every scene of Minari that it comes from a place of truth and meaning, a very human perspective. Chung’s own experiences that mirror that of the Yi family, particularly those of young David, are what give life to every word of dialogue and every shot; the screen is consistently filled with the kind of detail you only get in real life, or when reality is well imitated. It’s not the most cerebral of stories – you don’t really have to do much digging to understand Chung’s few metaphors – but you’d be hard pressed to not find something to relate to, even if it’s something as small as finding that older people smell a little different.

Yeun’s career has been going from strength to strength, appearing in both English- and Korean-language films and television shows. In my opinion, he has never put a foot wrong in his career, and look where this has led him – to a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards for his performance as Jacob. I see this nomination not just as a reflection of this performance, but his overall skill as an actor. His performance in Minari stands on the shoulders of all his other versatile performances that have led to this, and he is more than deserving of it. The same could be said of Youn in her nomination for Supporting Actress. She steals more than a few scenes in this film, and she is a breath of fresh air for the Yi family and for audiences. Han’s Monica is a wonderful realist contrast to Jacob’s dreamy optimist; she’s the one that leads us through the emotional trials of the Yi family. Cho’s Anne serves as a reminder of bridging the gap between her Korean family and their American life, smoothly switching between languages and certainly being a relatable character for many Korean-Americans, and Kim’s performance as David is one of the best child performances in recent years. It’s really through his and Anne’s eyes that we see much of the family’s life, and Kim is the kind of young actor that has a great career ahead of him, should he choose to continue down the acting path. As an ensemble, their performances blend wonderfully and the characters could not have been better cast.

You’d have to have been living under a rock for the past 12+ months if you weren’t aware of a little South Korean film called Parasite. A quick reminder, the Bong Joon-ho masterpiece won tons of awards at multiple festivals and from a few academies, including Best Film at the Oscars, breaking records and making history. Minari is already making its own mark in history, with tons of award nominations itself, including Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards and Best Actor for Yeun and Best Supporting Actress for Yoon. It’s been relegated to a nomination for Best Film Not in the English Language for the BAFTAs and won the same category at the Golden Globes, despite much of the film being in English and being a Korean-American film, which is an area of contention (why the BAFTAs and Golden Globes couldn’t nominate Minari for Best Picture whereas the Academy did is certainly up for debate). Despite all the accolades, I can’t help but wonder if Minari would be faring so well if it weren’t for the fact much less films were released last year. It definitely deserves the fanfare and support bestowed upon it, but I can’t help but feel that it may have been overlooked, at least more so in Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor/Actress/Supporting categories, had the American film industry been able to produce more films. Perhaps it’s a silver lining. The fact is we’ll never know how Minari would have done under normal circumstances, and we should be happy that such a diverse film is getting much well-deserved attention.

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