“The underlying drive with this film was just to show human beings,”
said Minari director Lee Isaac Chung. In an online press tour promoting the A24 film, Chung reiterated this sentiment repeatedly, as he did here with actor Steven Yeun and interviewer JJ Abrams. Minari is, at its core, a film about humanity – the struggles, the joys, the nuances, and the discoveries that come with the human experience.
Seeking his version of the American dream, a Korean immigrant moves his wife, daughter, and son from California to a remote farming community in mid-1980s rural Arkansas. A semi-autobiographical account of Chung’s own move to the southern state at age five, Minari portrays a loving family in crisis. Wholly determined to make a meaningful living growing Korean vegetables, Jacob (Steven Yeun) might lose his family before failing. At the same time, his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), feels alienated without her extended family and city life familiarity. “What is this place,” she asks Jacob when they first arrive at the Arkansas home. “Our new home,” he replies. “This isn’t what you promised,” she finally responds, despondent. Falling into debt to fund the farm’s crops and with their son, David (Alan Kim, the sweetest and funniest person on screen this year), suffering from a heart murmur, the family seeks resilience and love from their only source–each other. Will Patton also puts in a career-best performance as the fanatically religious and optimistic local helping on the farm.
After taking a break from filmmaking to care for his newborn daughter, Chung accepted a teaching job and wrote what could have been his final screenplay, Minari. His first three independent films played to varying success: 2007’s Munyurangabo was a critical darling and a Cannes Festival favourite, while 2010’s Lucky Life and 2012’s Abigail Harm were hardly seen. Chung began the process for Minari when his daughter turned David’s age by writing down childhood memories and forming them into a script. The story’s most prominent fictionalised aspect was Jacob’s will to succeed at any cost, which Chung intended as a message to his daughter that filmmaking ambitions would never come before family. “She’s the reason I made this film,” he said in a Golden Globes interview, holding his daughter.
After winning the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance, picking up Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes, and being nominated for six Academy Awards earlier this week, this imaginative, independent film about a Korean immigrant family might be the year’s most pleasant surprise. And yet, perhaps it’s not surprising, but rather a sign of times changing. There’s no questioning the impact that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has had on the Western movie-going public and, hopefully, on award ceremonies. By winning four Academy Awards last year, including Best Picture, and taking the world by storm, Parasite proved the commercial and critical worth of a film with subtitles. The “one-inch tall barrier” famously described by director Bong, which for so long, has stopped us from finding “amazing films”.
International films have had a strong presence in any recent ‘best movie of the year’ discussion. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, Jan Komasa’s Corpus Christi, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, and, of course, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite–to name a few. Whether they’ve been celebrated as such in popular discourse is an entirely different conversation.
I should have said earlier that what’s most surprising about Minari is its treatment as a ‘foreign’ film. At least by the demonstrably outdated rules of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Golden Globes, who this year faced severe backlash for not including a single voting member of colour. According to their rules, any film with less than 50 per cent English dialogue is only eligible for the Best Foreign Language Film category. Last year, that meant films like Parasite, and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, an American film spoken in majority Mandarin, were also ineligible for any major awards. I would gladly say ‘it’s your loss’ to the Golden Globes, but it’s not. It’s ours. The viewing public misses out on exposure and discussions around excellent films that become relegated. And more obviously, it’s the loss of those great filmmakers who are recognised as secondary–unqualified.
In his Golden Globes acceptance speech, Chung indirectly addressed this oversight, sitting next to his show-stealing daughter as she hugged him and cheered, “I prayed, I prayed”! “I just wanted to say that Minari is about family,” he said.
“It goes deeper than any American or foreign language. It’s a language of the heart, and I’m trying to learn it myself and to pass it on”.
Minari is, in fact, an American film made by A24 and Plan B, two American production companies. It’s also written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, who was himself born in America. That discussion of what it means to be ‘foreign’ is not meant simply as context for the film and its recognition; it informs Minari’s very message of humanity, identity, and assimilation. Chung wanted to give audiences a new window into the immigrant experience and show a different portrayal of the American dream. To most, the ideals of that dream are realised by arriving and having the privilege of living in America. In the film, despite leaving a difficult life in Korea, Jacob makes it clear that California was differently problematic. Until we meet them, he and Monica have had no choice but to work in chicken sexing, the kind of menial job that ‘no one else wants’ and immigrants should supposedly be thankful for.
Chung didn’t write this story to singularly depict the Korean immigrant story–as if it were his duty to do so. “As an Asian American, I feel like often we’re so closed in by this idea that we have to explain ourselves to a white audience or that with immigrants, you almost have to justify why they’re there and why we’re seeing them,” he told A24. He intended the Yi family’s journey to speak to the Korean community, the Asian-American community, immigrants more broadly, and even the rural farming communities of the South.
Listening to both Yeun (born in Korea but moved to North America at age 5) and Chung talk about their lives, it’s clear the collaborators still feel like the Yi family children–stuck somewhere between two cultures. In the film, the young kids love drinking Mountain Dew (healthy water from the mountains), they speak mostly English to each other, and they both find their visiting Korean grandmother rather strange. “Grandma, you’re not a real grandma,” a dismayed David says to Soonja (played by Youn Yuh-jung, whose celebrated career in Korea spans over half a century). He means that she’s not acting like an American grandma (or “halmeoni”) who should bake cookies, not swear, and not wear men’s underwear. In a Korean grocer, David’s sister Anne (Noel Cho) excitedly recognises kimbap, a Korean dish resembling sushi. However, neither she nor David can identify something else that we’re told resembles beans.
Despite both children identifying perhaps more closely with being American, to those at the town’s local church, they remain starkly different. “Why is your face so flat?” one boy asks David. Separately, Anne politely absorbs ignorant, racially insensitive sounds from a young girl who asks if any of them mean anything in her language. For non-Anglo immigrant families, there’s no escaping otherness. Monica, on the other hand, feels obliged to save her children’s Korean identities. “I heard American kids don’t like sharing their rooms,” Soonja says about David. “He’s not like that,” replies Monica in defence. “He’s a Korean kid.”
The film affectionately owes its title to the bitter Korean herb, which is famously hard to find but easy to grow. It thrives in damp environments, both sunny or shady, and according to Chung, the poetic plant makes everything around it cleaner. Speaking to JJ Abrams, he explains that minari should be left to die away, with the healthy second crop being harvested: “that feels like the immigrant experience to me”.
It takes an intimately personal story and a masterful director to make a film so joyful, heartbreaking, comical, and fluid. Chung’s memories of laughter and pain create more emotion and empathy than any fiction. “We invested in the idea of human beings, and to see that, yes, maybe that very naïve hope that we are all human beings in the end, that that’s paying off and we’re connecting–that’s great”.