Digital/VOD (Distributor: Altitude Film Entertainment) Running Time: 115 minutes approx.
People talk about home being where the heart is, but for those who have relocated from one town or even country to another, their heart may still be from whence they came. Is it possible to sever those ties and start anew or should you stay true to your roots?
In the 1980s, the Korean-American Yi family – Jacob (Steven Yeun), Monica (Yeri Han), and their children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) – move from California to Arkansas, so Jacob can follow his dream of starting a farm. Only he is enthusiastic – Monica wants to return to California and the kids struggle to adjust to their new rural surroundings.
As their arguments affect the children, Monica has her mother Soon-ja (Yuh-jung Young) brought over from Korea to help look after them. Having been raised in America, David can’t relate to the brash, coarse, and distinctly Korean Soon-ja, refusing to acknowledge her as a “real” grandmother. Caught between two cultures, Soon-ja strives to connect with David whilst Jacob makes a go of the farm.
Disclaimer: Before I go any further, I must declare that whilst I was aware there was some English dialogue in this film I didn’t know just how much. As it transpires, there was quite of lot of English dialogue, and the version I watched didn’t have HOH subtitles, therefore I missed a lot of what was said.
Minari, referring to an edible East Asian plant Soon-ja brings with her to America, is Lee Isaac Chung sharing with us a dramatised account of his own life growing up as a Korean in the US. Chung he said he was worried about is parents reaction to their story being shared with the world since they are very private people, so he didn’t tell them he had made the film until he started editing it.
Since the film has gone on to win many awards and critical plaudits in great volume, hopefully Chung’s parents are not as angry as he feared. Despite the main cast being Korean, this feels very much like an American film, in the camerawork, atmosphere, acting and texture. That sounds an odd thing to say but after seeing as many Korean films as I have, such things become perceptible to a viewer.
This isn’t to the detriment of enjoying the film but does make an interesting dichotomy that carries over from the cultural clash of the story. The sight of bemused Koreans in the rural south of the US is as close to incongruity as you can get since immigrants tend to descend on either suburbia or the metropolis. Nothing is made explicit but we can infer Jacob came from rural stock himself, and his desire to run a farm and grow Korean produce seems less a pipe dream and more a natural endeavour for him.
When Soon-ja arrives, she too brings with her a sense of the country, manifest in her esoteric ways and the various foods and spices from her homeland which delights Monica as much as it reminds of her what she left behind. David however is less impressed, rejecting the foul drinks Soon-ja presents him and her old-fashioned ways that he can’t relate to compared to his experiences in suburban California.
He is not alone in being unable to acclimatise, Monica is vocal in her displeasure at the move and unhappy in her job at a hatchery where she and Jacob sex chicks. Meanwhile, Jacob relies on God fearing eccentric local Paul (Will Patton) to help with the farm but progress is slow, hampered by problems with getting supplies, even simple things like water, that eat into the family’s meagre savings.
Further problems arise via health issues. David has heart murmur which prohibits him from exerting any energy like running, and has his parents wrapping him up in cotton wool. Typically, Soon-ja is unconcerned and gets David out in the fresh air and living life. Planting the titular minari seeds in a remote riverbank is their bonding experience, until Soon-ja has a stroke that leaves her unable to talk and move properly.
Chung’s script may be based on true events but it plays out like a conventional drama where each scene is built round the next obstacle for the family to overcome. What makes it unconventional is the protagonists being Korean, played by Korean actors too and not the nearest Asian-American who might look the part. This authenticity is vital to giving the fish out of water premise greater depth and sense of realism to the struggles of fitting into a strange place.
Korean identity also a crucial factor. Jacob wants to serve the Korean community in the US but is not naive to the fact he needs to fit in with how things are done in America to make his dream happen. Monica doesn’t seem to agree and the kids don’t know any different. Soon-ja is the ultimate odd one out here, 100% Korean and clueless about America, wanting her grandkids to embrace their heritage but also has to change to get them onside.
Wonderfully essayed by the cast, the family chemistry feels real despite being comprised of clashing personalities. The nuance is in the mystery as to whether this was always the case, or circumstances brought this about, embodied mostly in the turns from Stephen Yeun and Yeri Han. Veteran Yuh-jung Young steals every scene, with tough competition from Alan Kim. Only Noel Kate Cho is left with an underdeveloped character in Anne but rises above it to make her mark.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t completely connect with Minari because of the aforementioned dialogue issues and I am genuinely disappointed as I had been looking forward to seeing it for a while. However, I can see why people are enchanted by it, though not everything wowed me either. As a slice of life tale as seen through the lens of childhood innocence, its charm is undeniable and its hopeful message inspirational.
Rating – ***
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