At last year’s Oscars South Korea reaped the rewards for an investment in screen culture when Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite took out the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature. Parasite may be a hard act to follow but in 2021 Koreans are feeling optimistic about an entirely different kind of film: Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari.
On the surface there are few points of comparison between the two features. Parasite was a scabrous black comedy of social inequality set in contemporary Seoul, in which the poor and the wealthy vied with each other for the greatest display of amorality. Minari is an understated, domestic drama about a Korean migrant family that relocates from California to Arkansas in search of a better life.
Chung, who also wrote the screenplay, is an American of Korean descent, born in Denver, Colorado. He has drawn on his experiences of growing up on a farm in Arkansas to paint a subtle picture of the narrowness and good-heartedness of those who live in the poorest parts of the United States. It has been released at an opportune time, arriving at the cinemas while images of a violent mob of Trump supporters besieging the Capitol remain lodged in our minds.
Minari is being advertised with a line from the Los Angeles Times that says: “This is the movie we need right now” – presumably as a reminder that America is essentially a nation of ordinary, decent people. The violent extremists, the white supremacists, the crazed conspiracy theorists, make up only a small minority, even in those regions where people have little understanding of any place apart from their own patch of earth.
The movie begins with Jacob Yi (the inevitable, marketable Steven Yeun) driving his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), and two children to their new home. They have left the city in California for a property in the shadow of the Ozarks. It’s Jacob’s dream they are pursuing, as Monica knows no more about their new digs than we do. She is dismayed to learn they’ll be living in an extended trailer propped up on bricks. Looking inside she declares: “It gets worse and worse”.
Jacob wants his own farm where he can grow typical Korean food to sell to America’s Korean communities. Every year, he explains, another 30,000 Koreans come to live in the United States.
For an income both Jacob and Monica work in a nearby factory as chicken sexers. The home farming gets done in the mornings and evenings, and on weekends. Jacob rejects the services of a local dowser and decides to rely on “Korean know-how” when choosing a spot to dig a well. It’s the first of his mistakes. He has better luck with the tractor he buys from Paul (Will Patton), a down-at-heel yokel who becomes his regular farm hand. The awkward part is that Paul is a religious fanatic who lumbers around carrying a cross on Sundays, and is liable at any time to start talking in tongues.
Chung has little to tell us about the Yis’ teenage daughter, Anne (Noel Cho), but we enter fully into the imaginative world of his alter-ego, seven-year old David (Alan S. Kim). Born with a heart defect, David has to be treated carefully. He’s not allowed to run, for instance, but he is at that age when he is learning fast and open to experience – rather more so that his mother, who finds life on the farm lonely and depressing.
To help the family settle in Jacob brings out Monica’s widowed mother, Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn). The old lady is not especially ladylike, having a passion for cards and swearing. David is at first repelled by her, arguing she’s “not a real grandma” because she doesn’t bake cookies. What Soonja does is to plant the minari seeds that will flourish on the banks of a local waterhole. This abundant growth of green water celery will serve as the ruling metaphor of the movie, symbolising a successful Korean transplantation.
Jacob encounters more hardships than he had anticipated but stubbornly perseveres despite Monica’s hostility. The big question is: Do they stay or do they go? Does Jacob push on in the face of adversity or give up and take the family back to the city?
These are the sort of questions that always confront farmers in movies. What makes Minari different is the way the Yis try to insert themselves into a white, inward-looking community that views them as strange and exotic. In a church group one boy asks David why his face is so flat. A girl babbles at Anne and says: “Stop me when I say something in your language.” The Yis believe Mountain Dew is a pure health drink, not sugary fizz. These scenes are almost certainly drawn from Chung’s own childhood.
For the locals the Koreans might just as well be Martians, but to be accepted the Yis must avoid taking offence. This is fundamental to the migrant experience in which a newcomer clings to those things that are most precious to his or her native culture while trying to adapt to an unpredictable environment. To allay suspicions and hostilities one has to find a new normality that puts the neighbours at their ease.
At the heart of this film is a parable about the need for flexibility and tolerance in a world in which diverse cultures are being brought together to form new communities. The abiding need is to put aside the fear of the other and accept that we’re all in it together. To look at America today this might seem wildly idealistic but by the end of the movie it’s the only game in town.
Written & directed by Lee Isaac Chung
Starring Stephen Yeun, Yeri Han, Noel Cho, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-jung Youn, Will Patton
USA, rated PG, 115 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 20 February, 2021