Having charmed audiences at Sundance over a year ago, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari finally makes its way to UK screens. Drawing on his own South Korean heritage, and experience of growing up in rural Arkansas, the director’s poignant, very personal fifth feature was selected as the Opening Night feature of the 2021 Glasgow Film Festival and receives a digital release this week.
Taking its title and plucky characteristics from the Korean name for a celery-parsley type plant common to East Asia, the film is tough, tender, perseveres through all that is thrown at it, and soon sends down deep emotional roots. But following behind a hired truck, driven by her husband, Jacob (Steven Yeun), in the family station wagon, Monica (Yeri Han) is sorely unimpressed upon discovering their new house has wheels. A trailer in the middle of a field is not her idea of progress, but Jacob sees adventure, opportunity and “the best dirt in America.”
Their son, David (Alan S Kim – who is a revelation) has a heart murmur and they will be an hour from the nearest hospital; and how will their daughter, Anne (Noel Cho), make friends in so isolated a place? Parental arguments, power cuts and a tornado warning further dampen spirits. It is an inauspicious start. However, slowly but surely, the smallest of shoots begin to show through. Sexing chickens – males in one crate, females the other – is not glamorous work, but it will tide them over until the first harvest and it allows Monica to meet others in the community.
A chance to shape their own future from, quite literally, the ground up – a small farm growing Korean vegetables for the immigrant population – is the goal. Any ludicrous awards snubs (due to the film’s dual English-Korean script) aside, this tale of one family striving for their vision of the much-fabled Dream, is as American as the much-fabled apple pie, infused with its own individual flavour. Told with love, grace and honesty, there is real determination in Minari, and by and large a refreshing absence of ‘otherness’ or division. “What a beautiful family,” says the pastor as the Yis are welcomed on their first day at church.
That’s not to say that they have not forgotten where they have come from – both literally and figuratively. It is the 1980s and memories of the Korean War, and their family’s past, linger, but these are not a barrier to progress for the future. As God-fearing, prophet-like Paul (a transformed Will Patton), delivers a tractor to Jacob, he shows a worn photo from his wallet of serving in the conflict and ends up staying to help cultivate the farm. Throughout Minari, expectations of certain outcomes, even prejudices, are subverted.
Where conflict could arise, there is connection; moments of potential joy, bring sadness – and vice versa; where an ignorant, even racist, comment is perhaps expected, a hand is outstretched in friendship and encouragement. Chung, who wrote and directed, handles his own material with real poise and the performances he elicits from his cast are tremendous. Coping with the pressures of making a new start in life, worrying about their child’s health, struggling to make ends meet, Jacob and Monica find little time for one another. In every movement, gesture and regard, Yeun and Han communicate the weight on body and soul of their undertaking.
Resolute, inquisitive and remarkably at ease on camera for a lad of such tender years, Alan S Kim is a star in the making. It’s a pity that Anne is not as well-rounded a character as her brother, but her support and bossiness does do him good. However, Yuh-jung Youn steals the show – and every scene she is in – as Soonja, the elderly, off-the-wall matriarch. Cursing, gambling, stealing from the church collection, she is not the grandmother David expected to meet, but there’s plenty he can learn from her. Water may be a vital element in Minari, but blood runs thicker. And though roots may be hidden underground, knowing they’re there, and need to be cared for, is the only way to flourish.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63