Minari: a movie re-viewed

Still from Minari

After my first viewing, I was wondering whether to recommend Minari to my friends and family. If I’d bought an expensive cinema ticket to see it then I would have only seen it once. However, I bought a ticket that licensed me to view it as many times as I wanted within a 24 hour window of the Glasgow Film Festival, and so I was able to watch it, sleep on it, talk about it a little, and watch it again. Many movies and other works of art benefit from being talked about. Hence the enormous number of book clubs, seminars, reviews, critics etc. We might also say that the art that makes us talk is the most ‘interesting’ and thus most valuable. But then our talk may of course turn disparaging; and we also have to reserve a place in our personal pantheons for art that simply leaves us speechless.

This movie came to my attention graced with a swirl of hype and excitement and, though I don’t usually give much attention to trailers, the trailer for Minari seemed to confirm that this was going to be a great movie, and so I looked forward to it with much expectation. However, on first viewing my response was mild disappointment. Most of all it seemed to lack a certain dimension or layer of complexity and originality for me to be able to get really excited about it, despite its many obvious charms. Furthermore, the aspects of the film that made it emotional, moving and engaging – a prospective farmer’s dreams and set-backs; a small child with a weak heart; a marriage in danger of falling apart; a gnarly, wise and witty grandmother – all seemed a little unsurprising.

Nevertheless, the director, Lee Isaac Chung, in a recorded Q&A for the festival, helped me out a little, not only with his personal tales of the truth of this story wrapped up in his own family history (the movie is set in rural 1980s America), but also, along with his other justifications and explications, by providing an important clue in announcing that he saw his movie as a kind of ‘fable’. This made a difference and seemed to me to excuse some of the ‘classic’ or familiar characters and narratives. It also allowed me to see Minari as a purposefully simplified, accessible and inclusive movie with a moral. That may sound old-fashioned but it might also be both welcome and needed in these increasingly difficult times. Minari is a movie made for the broadest possible audience, but particularly (and most generously) for the huge worldwide Korean diaspora – and, more particularly, for the Korean / U.S.A. diaspora.

I don’t have to say that this film is ‘dramatic’ and ‘beautiful’. Those words won’t tell you much, and many or most of the films that you’ll be advised to watch will comply with such ubiquitous adjectives. What more specially justifies a recommendation here is the sensitivity and subtlety of this movie. It gradually diverts the brave, pioneering, die-hard aspirations of a young, male migrant farmer (played by Steven Yeun) – symbolic of the U.S.A’s original culture of conquest, cultivation and expropriation – in the direction of the ways and means of a migrant grandmother (Yuh-jung Youn) who knows how to make valuable and delicious crops grow without effort, in harmony with nature, using nothing more than tradition and intuition. While the young male farmer repeatedly fights, wins, loses, rails and rages – prioritisng what he calls ‘the mind’ and deploying new technologies while denouncing ancient methods – the grandmother simply scatters Minari seeds and sees them rapidly grow abundant on the banks of a stream close to the family’s (ugly, provisional and wheeled) trailer home. The moral of this fable lies in this direction, in the movie’s one-word title, ‘Minari’, the name of a water-cress-like plant that Koreans deploy in a variety of delicious and nutritious dishes.

While some of the movie’s tales, and its ways of telling them, might be familiar, its messages – reaching out, not just to the enormous Korean global diaspora but to migrants everywhere ¬– have to do with modernity and tradition, male force and female wisdom, but without reducing these distinctions to presumptuous binary oppositions. Meanwhile, Minari alludes to difficult questions facing all migrants and diasporas regarding how best to survive and adapt, how to retain identity and fit-in with new surroundings, as well as when to persevere and when to concede in vulnerable and challenging circumstances.

One of the special if not unique ways in which these messages are relayed in Minari is by looking at America and ‘Americans’ through the eyes of the Korean migrant family (here once again migrating from California to Arkansas). First, we note that the children, who have grown up bi-lingual, sometimes mix languages mid-sentence, and are constantly having to make choices and preferences regarding their dual-nationality and dual culture. When the family tries to integrate via the local church, we see that the local ‘established’ Americans, appear to the Koreans as eccentric, obese and uncaring with regard to their diet of trashy ‘convenience food’. Thus the ‘established’ Americans seem to occupy a culture that might just have lost its heart and its way; perhaps lost its tradition as much as its disappointed and disenfranchised modernity. The rural communities are threadbare, valiantly but barely clinging together – not unlike the original pilgrims perhaps – around poorly attended church meetings, galvanised by a vocal but reactionary and regressive form of Christianity. It is thus perhaps one of the cleverest aspects of this movie that, rather than being ‘about Korean migrants’ it allows us to see European white settlers, hundreds of years into their own migration, through the eyes of relative newcomers, the Korean family who view the ‘established’ Americans with scepticism and puzzled expressions.

Interestingly, this movie recently became part of a contentious debate at the Golden Globe Awards concerning which films should be eligible for ‘Best Movie’ and which only eligible for ‘Best Foreign Language Movie’. If you follow these arguments through you might just end up discussing what is ‘American’ and thus what is ‘America’? Should Minari, or for that matter (and for example) Martin Scorcese’s much lauded Italian-diaspora-based movies, be referred to as ‘American’ or not? And given that the modern United states of America is nothing if not a melting pot of multiple European diasporas, perhaps the only truly ‘American’ movie might be one made by, about and in the language of Native Americans?

Ultimately, I came to describe Minari to a friend as ‘a quiet storm’ of a movie. You could let the trailer try to convince you to watch this movie, but then it’s not quite as much of an emotional rollercoaster as the trailer promises. Rather, you might let this movie sink its subtle messages into you (and yes, seeing it twice might help). I could easily and justifiably say that it is full of wonderful performances, direction and dialogue, and is nobly and aptly served by a strangely spooky-yet-positive sounding musical score (by Emile Mosseri). I could also tell you that, on both of my own viewings, and for different reasons, its two hours length left me wanting to see another thirty minutes. But these are words you might find in other positive reviews of other movies, so let me turn to another way of recommending this film based on what I am repeatedly referring to here as its ‘special and unique’ attributes.

In the Q&A between the film’s director and the co-director of the online Glasgow Film Festival Allan Hunter, the emerging idea that no-one in this movie comes out of it as its ‘central character’ or ‘star’ also proved useful. This is quite an achievement given all the empathy and attraction we might feel towards most of the characters by movie’s end (a feeling that might even make us want to view Minari a third time).

However, perhaps this is where the model of the ‘fable’ once again kicks-in; that is to say, the director has laid out a sensitive description of a group of people who are all under pressure and beginning to pull apart, but who, at the same time, and at heart, also know that they must, need, and want to, stay together. Individual desires and subjectivities constantly tussle and tear but no-one has all the answers that they each as individuals need. Minari is John Steinbeck, it’s Willa Cather (whom the director acknowledges), it’s the “garden of Eden” as one character claims. That is to say, like any fable, it is classic, familiar, somewhat folk-ish, rural and quasi-biblical and yet it holds its own as an appropriate form for a 21st century movie made for a potentially global audience. It’s a story, after all, of all of us, both in our respective isolations and as an ever-shifting, ever-migrating local, national and global community.

Migration and immigration goes on generation after generation, century after century, and is seen here not as an exception, nor in opposition to anyone who can claim ‘indigenous’ status, but rather as the natural and pervasive way of things, the ‘way’ in which, not only people but plants and creatures too, have always found other and further places to try to root and prosper; like the delicious Minari plants, casually sewn as seeds on the banks of a brook by the increasingly endearing and mischievously spirited grandmother (halmoni), herself suddenly displaced from Korea to America in old age, but immediately making the most and the best of her situation.

There, I’ve written enough, perhaps too much, yet I still feel as though I have omitted to describe what you, as a potential fellow viewer, might regard as the most immediate attractions of and most notable events in this movie: the cute boy (Alan S. Kim) traversing woodlands in mini-cowboy boots while precociously battling with his Korean grandmother; the powerful intensity of the married couple’s (the wife played by Yeri Han) fracturing relationship, which is at turns hysterically verbose, barely spoken or conducted by eyes only; the poorly paid and gross abjection of a ‘migrant’s’ job that nobody wants, manually sexing chicks for a hatchery; Paul, the charmingly mad, weird-but-harmless local Christian (Will Patton); and many other strong symbols, incidents and characters, admirably cast (by Julia Kim) and gently eased into and around the edges of this 21st century fable by its artful director.

Minari, 2020, directed by Lee Isaac Chung
Starring Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho, Yuh-jung Youn
reviewed by Paul O’Kane

Minari won best foreign language picture at the 2021 Golden Globe awards

Editor’s note: Thanks to Paul for contributing this article, which would otherwise have appeared on his personal blog, A few words a week on Art and Life In London

2 thoughts on “Minari: a movie re-viewed

  1. What an intelligent, insightful, thoughtful, contextualized critical review. This review should be helpful to all audiences. This is a reviewer/critic I intend to follow.

  2. Hi, and thank you for your feedback, which is rare and welcome.
    Actually, it may be hard to ‘follow’ this critic, because I only write pieces like this occasionally, when inspired or commissioned.
    But this has been a good experience and I might try to write more often for LKL etc.

    Best wishes,
    Paul

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