Minari is an autobiography drawn from the childhood experiences of the director himself, Lee Isaac Chung, one of the few Korean immigrants who grew up in 1980 Arkansas. The movie tells the story of a Korean family who moves from California in the 80s to rural Arkansas for a better life—a choice that almost destroys the family. A Korean-American man, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), leave their California job in a hatchery, where they separate female chickens from the males, to continue with the same job on moving to Arkansas.
However, Jacob would like a change and doesn’t want to separate chicken sexes for the rest of his life, hence his decision to go into farming. Monica doesn’t like the new setting, she immediately shows her disapproval for the new place (a house on wheels) and tells her husband that “this isn’t what you promised.” The fact that they have a child with a heart problem and the hospital is an hour away added to her feeling of disdain for their new home.
Jacob’s salvation for his family hinges on “dirt”. He establishes that their new home possesses one of the finest dirt in America which will be apparently good for farming. Jacob farms on the land with an unusual Christian man named Paul (Will Patton). Their kids, David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho) didn’t really have a hard time settling in. The story touches the challenges and complications that come with the American dream and the difficulty of starting afresh.
First of all, the cast of the movie is outstanding, especially David. Every scene with him is fun and thrilling to watch. He is like the tension reliever in the movie, a core part of the movie’s evolvement. Amid the tension between their parents, we are introduced to Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), Monica’s mother, who travelled from Korea to Arkansas to stay and help with the children. She is a playful and humorous old woman who teases David every chance she gets. During her stay, Grandma Soonja helps the children to thrive and heal in her own heedless way. Her practical and sensible nature provides the children, especially David, a means to change their focus from the growing tension between their parents. The old woman brought different recipes and the Minari seed from Korea.
However, David does not really like his grandma because she doesn’t fit into his Americanised view of a grandma. Apparently, he believes a grandma should be able to bake, which she can’t and complains bitterly that “she smells Korean”. On the other hand, grandma Soonja would rather play cards, watch wrestling and drink Mountain Dew, which she calls water from the mountain. Interestingly, David and grandma Soonja still hover around each other despite their constant bickering. While exploring the vast land alongside David, the old woman finds a nice spot by the stream to grow the Minari seed.
So, what exactly is Minari?
Minari is a Korean herb that can grow and flourish anywhere if planted in the right place. It is a form of symbolism used in the movie to depict resilience— the flexibility of the family to adapt in a new environment. The fact that it can also adapt to climate changes and grow anywhere presents the notion that “Korean immigrants” can settle down and thrive anywhere. The plant represents the growth of the family in their new home. It is just ironic that as the plant grows and flourishes, the family tends to grow apart due to the new settlement.
Minari, the movie that won the best foreign movie at the 2021 Golden Globes is a story of failure and revival. The rest of the story deals with how the family members are able to overcome their tribulations or did they really? Jacob’s incessant will to grow Korean vegetables on American land is symbolic, a means of trying to fit in his family in another man’s land. Some of the problems range from what church the family should attend or if they should even go to one, should they make friends with people who do not share their cultural heritage or move to a larger part of the town with many Korean people?
As shown, the movie has a deeper meaning— a means to make people reflect on themselves. Liberation can come through the least expected person (Grandma Soonja) and one’s failure can also clear the road to success, by serving as an eye opener. Jacob is so obsessed with his farm, with the hope of actually succeeding at something, that he is losing the most important thing to him—family. It takes him a burnt shed (accidentally caused by Grandma Soonja) to finally come to his senses.
The ending of the movie isn’t really gratifying. Yet, with all the built-up tension, the ending feels so murky and uncertain. Maybe the whole point of the movie is to show that nobody’s path in life is certain—just like the Yi’s family—the hope for greener pastures almost tore the family apart. I think immigrants will be more emotionally invested in the movie than any other viewer. The sacrifice it takes to settle down in a new place is a gigantic step to take. Even though the movie relies a little too much on nature shots to capture viewers attention, it is a warm Korean-American drama to watch and enjoy with loved ones or even alone.
- David, who bedwets almost everyday but hides his underwear and tries to cover up the pee spot with his blanket reminds me of when I was his age?- or maybe just many of us?
- Grandma Soonja’s love for “water from the mountain” (Mountain Dew) is amusing. She couldn’t even smell the odour of the pee David gave to her in place of the drink.
- Kudos to Alan S. Kim and Yuh-Jung Youn who embody their characters so well that I could rewatch the movie just to see their superb acting once again.
- Even kids need to watch this movie just to learn one or two things from David on how to get out of trouble from parents. It might not work on Nigerian parents but it is worth the try?.
- I really dig the Mountain Dew advert. It was subtle yet beautiful.
Minari is currently available on VOD.