The film Minari is about the specific and the universal.
It’s about the specificity of being a Korean dad in a family of four, trying to start a farm in rural Arkansas, a place you have never been before. On this farm, you want to grow vegetables which you are ultra-familiar with, and which remind you of Korea.
It’s about the specificity of being the woman who is married to this man who wants to start this farm. You do not have the love or the desire for the farm, unlike your husband. You fear it is destined to fail; you see ahead of you what will happen when the plan inevitably collapses and you and your son and daughter – not yet old enough to understand their father’s compulsion – have to deal with the fallout, the embarrassment, the financial strain, the needing to move somewhere else.
It is about the specificity of being the son and daughter of this mum and dad, navigating your own young lives, watching the ebb and flow of your parents’ love and your parents’ fights; wondering about the questions you get from white people you meet about the language you speak, or the shape of your face.
The specificity of being the grandmother to these children, the mother to their mother, who is not “like a grandmother”. As though all grandmothers are the same; as though all Korean grandmothers are the same. You are here to look after your grandchildren, but not mollycoddle them. You’re trying to love your own life, follow your own desires, be they for cigarettes or a spring water called Mountain Dew, or for planting hardy minari seeds near a rarely-visited riverbed.
Minari is about all these very specific things, these specific people – fictional characters with a fierce attachment to real life. The real life of the film’s director Lee Isaac Chung, and his father who immigrated from Korea and started a farm in Arkansas. From this circle of beginning it spreads out to the other circles who have experienced specific moments like these specific characters, other Korean families, Korean-Americans, immigrants to America, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, children, people who see something specific in this film that shows them what they experienced, what they know to be true.
Continuing zooming out and Minari takes in even more feelings and moments which viewers might be affected by.
There is the desire to follow through with an idea that only you seem to have passion for – like the father, Jacob (Steve Yeun), though he can’t seem to fully grasp the impact this desire has on those around him.
Threaded throughout the film is the feeling the mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) has: of knowing someone you love is brave enough to follow through with a dream they have – a dream you cannot see yourself, which you know is vivid and real for them – but hating how much that dream takes out of them, and out of you.
Tucked into the film, too, is the experience of moving from one place to another. Of feeling this new culture you are part of has a strange curiosity about your culture, and about you. Of wondering if some of the people you meet want to keep you in your place and also hold you up to their eyes as if you are under a microscope, so they can feel like they understand you better. As though you are something to be ‘understood better’.
A woman may see herself as the grandmother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), fighting against the image of what age means she is supposed to be like. She will see, in her, the same will to be herself despite the projection of what others want her to be.
A sibling may see themselves in elder sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), or her younger sibling David (Alan Kim). They may understand what it’s like to be, or be close to, a person who has an illness which requires constant monitoring, and which means the spectre of death is always floating around the edges of family life.
Religion shows up in Minari in the shape of Monica’s return to church, and the sense of safety and comfort it gives her. It also shows up in the form of farmhand Paul (Will Patton), who comes to work with the family. He speaks in tongues, and he fears and loves God. He is willing, as we are shown, to walk a dusty road with sweat rolling down his face, carrying a wooden cross on his shoulder. Some watching may feel, if not exactly like Paul themselves, a sense of why he is willing to do this. I might not have understood this man’s total immersion in God, his pure belief in suffering for Him. But who has not suffered in some way for holding closely what they see as an absolute truth? In Minari, Paul is let be himself, despite the fact that what he does is often baffling to others. That’s not the point, we realise: it is not baffling to him.
Minari is a story of persistence, and loss, and culture, and family, and identity. It’s a story about growing vegetables, and finding the water to help those vegetables flourish.
Though Minari holds within it big themes, it knows the power of telling them in a small and intimate way. It understands that every family has its own uniquely choreographed dance, and its own box of emotions to pull from.
Some viewers will observe as the family move into their trailer and start to make that trailer more and more a reflection of what means ‘home’ for them. They will think: I was wondering when that object would appear on a shelf; I was wondering when the mother would say that word.
There are short little moments sprinkled across the film which are actually big moments in disguise, like when Soonja hands Monica a big bag of dark red gochugaru (Korean red chili flakes) and Monica is overcome with what you know is a mixture of joy, nostalgia, hunger, sorrow. Or when Anne speaks to a young girl at a church meeting, and the girl lets forth a stream of nonsense words and asks her if anything she happens to utter is Korean. Or when David and Anne hastily construct easily-crushed paper planes, writing messages on them asking their parents not to fight, and launch them at their mum and dad as they argue.
I loved Minari, because Minari does what great films usually do – it tells a specific story and lets the viewer find something of themselves in it. I say usually because there are films where the point is that things are utterly impossible for you to insert yourself into. And those bring some joy (or maybe joyful confusion) too.
Recently, I’ve connected with a teenage girl living in a desert and trying to find her way around life, in Gas Food Lodging; I’ve lost myself in the mixture of danger and desire in In The Cut; I’ve laughed at the quite silly Poseidon on Netflix and wondered if I’d survive an event like that (probably not).
I saw Minari a few weeks before the latest horrific hate crime against Asian-American people in the US made the news here. And lest we forget, last year the coronavirus was being referred to as the ‘Chinese virus’ by the former US president.
Ireland has its own specific moments and undercurrents of racism. Irish society is certainly not immune to making people who have arrived on the island, with their own dreams and their own plans, feel other and unwanted, despite the country’s history.
When I think of Minari, I think of how it’s a film about being. But being is complicated, and multi-faceted, and is impacted by the forces of family and society and culture. Our ‘being’ can be buffeted by a strength we can’t match, and yet we have to try and hold ourselves upright against all those forces. Because that’s all we can do, really, isn’t it. Just try to be.
Minari was on as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, and will go on general release here on 9 April.
Some further reading:
The Invisible Artistry of Asian Actors – The Atlantic
How Minari conveys Asian wariness of the American Dream – Little White Lies
“Minari” is an American film about the American dream — why did the Globes categorize it as foreign? – Salon