There’s an irony to Minari being one of the year’s most talked-about movies, the buzz around it growing ever louder as it racks up more and more nominations in 2021’s delayed awards season. The latest film from director Lee Isaac Chung is quiet and restrained, its scenes filled with small subtleties rather than big noise.
Watching it feels like going home, even if you’ve never been to the rural Arkansas in which it is set. With much of the film focused on seven-year-old David Yi (played by breakout child star Alan Kim in his first role), there’s a nostalgia to it that takes you back to childhood summers drifting off in the back of your parents’ car and the little adventures you’d get up to only steps from your house.
Yet the building on wheels that David and his family live in hasn’t always been home. Minari begins with them arriving at the rectangular, brown structure for the first time, dad Jacob (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) hoping to leave behind a dreary job identifying the sex of baby chicks back in California and replace it with his own farm, filled with Korean vegetables. Mum Monica (Yeri Han) doesn’t share his dream – her quiet resentment is palpable from the start and only grows as Jacob lifts her into the flimsy mobile. “It just gets worse and worse,” she sighs, surveying the inside.
Monica is briefly cheered when her mother Soon-ja (Korean acting legend Youn Yuh-jung) arrives from Korea, her relief at their reunion beautifully moving. But Soon-ja’s arrival also sparks protests from David, who has never met his grandmother before. “You’re not a real grandma!” he tells her at one point. “They bake cookies! They don’t swear! They don’t wear men’s underwear!” When she attempts to bond with him by calling him pretty, he yells back: “I’m not pretty, I’m good-looking!” He soon gets his revenge in one of the film’s funniest scenes, naughtily tricking his grandma with a cup of urine she believes is Mountain Dew.
As Jacob’s attempts to grow crops on his new farm falter, so does his marriage. Mostly the cracks grow silently, shown through icy glares and awkward silences. At times, they split loudly as the pair’s simmering tension boils over into big fights.
There has been much discussion about whether Minari is a Korean film or an American one, exacerbated by the controversy around the Golden Globes not allowing it to compete in the Best Picture category. The script flits from Korean to English and back again, but looking at language alone negates that the Yi’s pursuit for a better life and the obstacles they face aren’t specific to any one nationality. Regardless of where they’re from, this movie is about family and the sacrifices we make for each other.
It’s also an important exploration of the experiences of immigrants putting down roots in new countries. David is the only member of the Yi family to be born in America and he often sits at extremes to his grandma. Both show different sides of cultural assimilation, David trotting around in his cowboy boots wherever he goes, Soon-ja not conforming to her grandson’s aforementioned views of what a grandma should be, of which he will have only seen in the US.
Although for much of Minari there might seem to be little realistic hope – when one good thing happens, something bad seems to quickly follow – the plant that the film takes its name from offers some optimism for the Yi’s future. The east Asian vegetable adapts to most climates, but is often stronger in its second season of growing. It’s a subtle reward for the energy you’ll spend willing the family to make it through this beautiful film; the idea that, although we might not see it, life works out in the end.
- Director: Lee Isaac Chung
- Starring: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim
- Release date: In Australian cinemas now