Illustration by Ben Beechener
There could not have been a better film to return to the cinema with. Shrouded in darkness, gazing at the big screen, I was welcomed into a world that was (and still is) so relevant to me. Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, narrates the story of Korean immigrant Yi family, moving from California to the Arkansas countryside, but the tension lies in the parents’ differing desires: Jacob, subtly played by Steven Yeun, wants to start a farm and to embrace the “American Dream” to show that he has succeeded in life after working in chicken hatcheries for years; but Monica, played by Han Ye-ri, embodies the pragmatic, and even pessimistic, mother who would rather live in the city. Monica constantly worries about her son David – Alan Kim is a real standout here – who has a heart condition, while her daughter Anne, played by Noel Kate Cho, is the dutiful eldest child.
But let us start from the beginning. Instantly, the child’s perspective, waking up to the discomfort of the saloon car’s backseats, and the hauntingly echoey soundtrack, brought me right back to Spirited Away. Then, just like the bathhouse is Chihiro’s new home in Spirited Away, you see the Yi family’s new home: practically a trailer stacked on top of concrete bricks. This film does not beat around the bush, because the next thing you see is the field where Jacob will lay out his farm in this wonderfully hazy Arkansas countryside, his own big Garden of Eden. The power of faith underlies this film, whether the Christian faith or faith in the American Dream. Indeed, Jacob has faith in himself to succeed, whereas Monica does not, and it is his willpower that drives the story forward, as the Yi family learns to adapt to the challenges of living in the Arkansas countryside.
The real core of the story, however, is not in the depiction of the American Dream, but in the central relationship between David and his grandmother Soon-ja – Youn Yuh-jung’s performance is particularly amazing – who moves from Korea to live with her family. It is through this inherently loving bond that Minari blooms. I see so much of myself in David: the constant battle of identification of my “home” culture between my Vietnamese and my English identities; the cultural differences between that feed into this battle – David telling his grandmother “you’re not a real grandma” is imprinted in my mind; and the acceptance of both cultures and, more importantly, my family. The truly life-affirming thing about Minari is the unshakeable core of human life, that family unit that will embrace and love you unconditionally. The grandmother-grandchild relationship will always mean so much to me, having been raised by my bà ngoại from birth. It is Soon-ja’s simultaneous attachment and detachment to David that really underlines why their relationship is so key to understanding Minari in my opinion. Soon-ja shows her love for David in such East Asian terms, through the passing down of wisdom and proverbs, the desire to curb the parents’ over-traditional form of punishing David, the confidence and faith in David to succeed and overcome his heart condition.
It is the little things that bind this film together and give the story its identity. Minari embraces its immigrant family status: the blending of English words into Korean; bringing across to the States traditional Korean herbs and planting them; how the parents still hold onto traditional methods of punishment (kneeling on the floor with arms raised above the head is surprisingly tough). Even the cynicism towards the host country, beautifully depicted as Jacob refuses the water dowser in the beginning of the movie and teaches David to believe in himself, is on show. One almost expects there to be more overt racism in this film, but it is far more welcoming. The most obvious depiction of racism comes mainly from ignorance from youth, and even then, the Arkansas community welcomes the Yi family.
Steven Yeun harnesses the character of Jacob so beautifully, having to accept his own solitude because of his belief in his dreams. He does not want to succeed in order to impress Americans – why, when he has already been accepted into the USA? – but rather in order to prove to himself and his family that he has made it. He wants to build his farm so that David can see his dad succeed after years in a dead-end job and so that David can succeed later in life. This workhorse mentality is so important to immigrant families. Yet, we see how estranged he is from his family when he focuses far too much on his dreams. Alan Kim plays David so maturely for his age, and Youn Yuh-jung manages to be so explosively expressive yet so tender and subtle. Yes, the character of Anne could have been fleshed out more and given more agency and I would have liked to see more interaction between the Yi family – especially Monica – and the Arkansas community, but the film still felt fulfilling: each character is realistic, and their interactions reflect so much on my upbringing, be it the constant and ferocious arguing or the quiet, tender signs of affection and love.
Right at the heart of Minari is family. It reminds us that the family as a social concept and unit never ends and will always be there to welcome us back. We might not have chosen our family; nevertheless, we accept them and they accept us. What is truly marvellous about Minari is that it never speaks down to you but welcomes you into the Yi family. Minari is a hardy little plant, that grows every year and, as Chung says himself, it grows very strongly in its second season, and it only reminds me even more of my own bà ngoại, whose garden flourishes every year with Vietnamese herbs like fish mint (dấp cá) and perilla (tía tô). Relationships may break down, but just like dấp cá, tía tô, and minari, familial love will always regenerate and flower for you to reap and savour. This film is a wonderfully subtle and humble masterpiece that left me weeping by the end and not quite thinking so much as feeling. Minari perfectly embraces the rather liminal status of an immigrant family, torn between two identities and cultures, only to remind us that familial love and identity are forever unbreakable.