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A Celebration of Lee Isaac Chung's Minari

Minari,” a small American independent movie which was released in South Korean theaters in the first week of this month, is a simple but sublimely intimate tale which amused and touched me a lot. Mainly focusing on one South Korean immigrant family trying to settle in the middle of Arkansas around the early 1980s, the movie has numerous genuine emotional moments of understanding and empathy; these precious moments are elegantly delivered by the unadorned but undeniably powerful narrative of this truly exceptional film. 

While it surely comes to us as a universal American immigrant family drama on the surface, the movie is also quite specific in terms of background and character. As a 38-year-old South Korean guy who has seldom left his country since his birth, I am different from its main characters in many aspects despite the common heritage. But in getting to know them more through the story, I observed them with considerable curiosity and interest. I frequently recognized those small but notable cultural elements glimpsed from them and their new American life, and this induced some knowing smiles and chuckles from me, in addition to bringing me a valuable understanding of the diaspora of Korean Americans in the 1980s.  

In the beginning, the movie gradually establishes a big change in the life of a South Korean immigrant couple and their two children. Tired of many years of sexing chickens at hatcheries, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) decided to move from California to some rural region in Arkansas, but his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and their children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho), are not particularly excited about this decision. When they finally arrive at a remote spot where he is supposed to start a farm for Korean vegetables, only an empty trailer home is waiting for them. But Jacob remains hopeful about their rural life ahead. He strongly believes that his farm business will be eventually successful because of the growing number of Korean immigrants in US at present.    

However, Monica has doubt and reservations about her husband’s plan, and has also become quite frustrated with how her husband has often overlooked that she and their kids should come first. For example, without his wife’s agreement, he gave his family a considerable portion of what he earned during last several years, just because he is obliged to do that as the eldest son of his family. The growing conflict between him and his wife leads to a sudden argument during the first night in their new home, and their children hear every angry word from them while also trying to cope with this painful incident in their own innocent way.

Jacob then embarks on the first steps in his farm business. It goes without saying that he will have to handle lots of things including getting the water for his crops, but it looks like he may succeed in the end as long as he keeps trying. In addition, he happens to hire some shabby old guy who turns out to have been to South Korea once, and this rather eccentric old dude, entertainingly played by Will Patton, is willing to help Jacob more than expected. 

Because Jacob and Monica still have to work at a local hatchery for making their ends meet, they need someone who can babysit David and Anne during their absence: enter Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) soon comes from South Korea. While Monica is glad to have someone to lean on as her husband is mostly occupied with his farm work, David cannot not accept his grandmother that well in comparison. She feels like a total stranger to him from the beginning, and David is not so pleased when he later has to sleep with his grandmother in his bedroom at night.

Although Soon-ja is not very grandmotherly in American way besides “smelling like Korea,” it does not take much time for David to develop a bond between him and his grandmother, who is a colorfully unconventional old woman in addition to being your average no-nonsense Korean grandmother. She likes to drink a certain soft drink brand which she often calls “water from the mountains” (guess what that is, folks), she enjoys watching pro-wrestling matches on TV, and she also gladly teaches David a traditional card game named hwatu, which I have not still mastered yet, being a lousy and disinterested card player. She and her grandchildren often stroll together around here and there, and she is delighted when she finds a small but ideal place for growing minari, a Korean water plant which is usually used as an herb for various dishes here in South Korea. 

As Jacob and his family get more accustomed to the new environment surrounding them, the movie occasionally provides several amusing moments associated with cultural difference. While local people are mostly friendly to their new neighbors, Jacob and his family cannot help but feel awkward as outsiders when they attend a church service along with a bunch of local people. There's also a little funny moment when Anne encounters a young local girl who has no idea on Anne’s ethnic background from the very start. 

Meanwhile, things get worse in the farm to Jacob’s frustration. As days of dry weather continue, with his main source of water drying out, he has no choice but to pay for more water for his crops, which subsequently puts more pressure on not only him but also his family. Monica runs out of her patience more than ever, and there later comes a quiet but devastating scene where she bitterly expresses her longtime frustration with a man she has tried to love and trust during all those years since they married in South Korea. Like any immigrants coming to US, they hoped for a better life for not only themselves but also their children. But Monica has doubts about their future more than ever, and Jacob has to face a bitter fact he has ignored for years, while stubbornly pursuing his American dream as much as he can.  

While the mood becomes a little melodramatic around this narrative point, the organic storytelling from director/writer Lee Isaac Chung calmly glides the viewer from one moment to another, and cinematographer Lachlan Milne and editor Harry Yoon immerse us deeper into the main characters’ domestic environment via small and big details. When I watched "Minari" with my parents, my mother was amused to notice a number of familiar stuff including a certain blue plastic dipper; we all became a bit nostalgic when one old but well-known South Korean pop song appears at one point. 

Chung also draws fabulous performances from his main cast members, who are all quite believable as characters to empathize with. While Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri flawlessly embody the long relationship history between their characters, Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho are engaging in their respective roles, and Youn Yuh-jung, who has been a living legend in South Korean cinema for many years and is also one of the coolest contemporary South Korean actresses in my humble opinion, is simply unforgettable in her unpretentious mix of humor and poignancy. If Yeun and Han are the soul of the film, Youn and Kim are its heart (to say the least), and Youn is especially poignant during a brief wordless moment around the end of the movie.

On the whole, “Minari” is a superlative piece of work which deserves to be mentioned along with other recent notable Asian American films such as Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” (2019), and it is really exciting for me to see Chung finally getting far more attention than before. When I watched his remarkable first feature film “Munyurangabo” (2007) for the first time in 2009, I could discern that he was indeed a talented new filmmaker to watch, as my friend/mentor Roger Ebert said. His next two features “Lucky Life” (2010) and “Abigail Harm” (2012) unfortunately did not get much attention, and he was actually under the radar for next several years before he started to work on the screenplay of “Minari” in 2018.

I still fondly remember when I had a little conversation with Chung around the time when “Munyurangabo” was shown at the 2010 Ebertfest. Because both of us incidentally studied biology at first and then became quite passionate about movies in our way, he jokingly told me that we disappointed our respective parents a lot just because of movies. Now I want to assure him that he has made something to make his parents very proud of him, and I sincerely hope that the current critical success of “Minari” will lead to other interesting works in his promising filmmaking career.

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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