To celebrate its UK premiere, Maxwell Tait reflects on the breathtaking MINARI, Lee Isaac Chung's warm, charming drama of a Korean-American family trying to get by. It's opening the 2021 Glasgow Film Festival next week, and pre-orders are open now for your first chance to watch.
I don’t think you can place too much trust in music. The moment some films start, you know you’re in a safe pair of hands. Look no further than Nicholas Britell for If Beale Street Could Talk and Jonny Greenwood for Phantom Thread; two of the best films of the last decade that, coincidentally, melt you within the first thirty seconds, leaving you in a puddle for the remaining two hours as your seat swings shut. Minari is one of these films. Emile Mosseri has followed his work on The Last Black Man in San Francisco with a yearning, gorgeous score that immediately plunges you under, submerging you entirely. As the Korean-American Yi family roll up to their new home — and new life — you are well and truly in.
It’s some time in the eighties, and Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri) have just arrived in rural Arkansas in search of a better life for them and their children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim). There’s always steady work sexing chicks in the nearby factory, as they did in California, but Jacob has plans of supplementing that by growing Korean produce on their fifty acres of “good American dirt”. Maternal-grandmother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) is brought over from Korea to keep an eye on the kids, but Mountain Dew-chugging David takes against her — “she’s not even a real grandma… she can’t bake cookies.” Between constant arguments with her husband, Monica, already unimpressed by the fact that her new home has wheels, is eying a return to the city. All this, and the crops are getting dry.
Those are the broad strokes, but there are so many other tiny subplots sprouting on the Yi’s unspoiled land, and Chung and his exceptional cast make light work of packing these domestic incidents with allegory and significance, without feeling forced. When David is being punished by his father, he ‘accidentally’ breaks the stick he is about to be caned with. He is ordered to fetch a new stick from outside, and his grandmother can’t stop laughing at what he comes back with. Monica is brought to tears when she unwraps the chilli powder that her mother has brought over from Korea, it’s so hard to come by — “we even drove eight hours to Dallas and it wasn’t very good.” When their parents argue, rock of the family Anne enlists David's help in throwing paper aeroplanes from the doorway with 'DON'T FIGHT' scrawled on them. And everything comes back to water, the unifying requirement for almost all life, in its many shapes and forms. I haven’t even mentioned minari, the titular, unfussy East-Asian herb that turns your spell check red.
The semi-autobiographical story is based on director and screenwriter Lee Isaac Chung’s own experiences. In some ways, Chung's father came to the US chasing the classic, tinned American dream because of — by his own admittance — what he’d seen in Hollywood movies. But Chung is careful not to simply present a bland criticism of this idealistic outlook: “I was more interested in what it is about us that desires that dream, to the point that we would take such a great risk.”
This sympathetic view towards contrasting cultures is one of the film’s strengths, leading to plenty of small moments of understanding, where connections are found in spite of differences. Like when the family are driving back from church and encounter Paul (Will Patton), the old local whom Jacob employs as help on the farm, dragging a huge cross on his back down the dirt road “because it’s Sunday”. He politely declines their offer of a lift, and they drive away. Jacob responds to his wife’s incredulous look — “What? You like Jesus too.”
It’s also a relief to see a reversal of outdated East Asian stereotypes that frequently crop up in Hollywood, by turning the tables towards Western follies. Dowsing rods (or divining rods) frequently appear — a perennial symbol of American frontierism, despite having little to no scientific grounding. Like Jacob, we’re initially sceptical of Paul’s claims of being a Korean War veteran. Besides his cross-carrying, Paul always has holy water to hand, and is perpetually spluttering prayers and insisting on exorcising things.
But Minari demonstrates a maturity by not ridiculing these eccentricities, rather highlighting them as just that — idiosyncrasies, or traditions. Even when the film draws attention to the Western habit of applauding everything, it’s funny, but it isn’t barbed. It does the same thing with generational differences, of which there are plenty in the three generations of the Yi family. By creating a relatively level playing field, Minari guards itself against any unwarranted accusations of hypocrisy.
That’s the unique character that Minari has. It’s a rare combination of cute and quality, managing to be wholesome and fun without blunting any of its acuity. People will end up comfort watching it on repeat, even though the film's moments of jeopardy feel in no way deceitful. The gushing declarations you will doubtless be seeing that Minari is sweet and gentle are not incorrect as such, but the film's sociopolitical grounding is its base note. As Peter Kim George puts it in his excellent review, this is not so much a story of assimilation, but “displacement and diaspora.” The Yi family have lived through a difficult point in Korean history before the film begins, one that caused a swell of immigration. And it's alluded that their experience in California wasn't easy either. Minari is ultimately about survival, and it is vital not to conflate the film's tranquility for ignorance or toothlessness. That's where we return to the music. Like Phantom Thread and If Beale Street Could Talk, Minari's score is incredibly beautiful and uplifting, but also achingly melancholic, successfully transmitting the nuances of human experience.
It’s an unpleasant irony that such an empathetic film has not had its positive intentions reciprocated. The Golden Globes recently announced that Minari would compete in ‘Best Foreign Language Film’, and although this is technically correct (around 70% of the dialogue is Korean) the film is patently as American as Jacob’s red baseball cap. At best, this shows the terminology of the category to be woefully outdated; at worst, it is a wilfully ignorant and obnoxious interpretation. But who even are the Golden Globes?
Minari is generous, tender and nourishing — and you couldn’t really ask for any more than that.
Minari is available to rent via the Glasgow Film Festival website from 19.00 on Wednesday 24 February until 19.00 on Saturday 27 February. Limited spaces are available, so pre-order it now to get yours.