Greener Pastures

February 11, 2021

THROUGHOUT MINARI, seven-year-old David Yi is told not to run. He has a heart murmur, so his parents and older sister just want him to be safe. But how could he not run, surrounded by all the open space of rural Arkansas? His grandmother understands, and prefers caring for him in a different way, coaxing him toward neither recklessness nor idleness but instead toward an openness to risk, vulnerability, and failure. It is this different way that shapes the film.

A coming-of-age story based on director Isaac Lee Chung’s own experience growing up Korean American with his immigrant parents during the 1980s, Minari follows the Yi family after their move from California to Arkansas, where the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), grows vegetables to sell to a steadily increasing number of Korean immigrants in the South. With no community or childcare support for David and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), he and his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), decide to bring her mother Soonja (Youn Yuh Jung), from Korea. As they settle into their mobile home, Monica arranges furniture and lines dresser drawers while Jacob plows, waters, and harvests their land with the help of Paul (Bill Paxton), a Pentecostal veteran of the Korean War. Jacob and Monica also work part-time at a hatchery, sorting baby chicks by sex. At one point, David keeps his father company while he takes a smoke break. When David notices ash from a furnace drifting into the air and asks what it is, Jacob tells him that the reason they sort the baby chicks is to discard the males; they are not of use. “So you and I should try to be useful,” he tells his son.

At first, David does not like having grandma around. Not only must he share a room with her, she’s also not even “a real grandma” who cooks and bakes cookies. Soonja knows and could not be bothered. She shows her care through proximity, a tendency to be just in the other room, in front of the television watching US wrestling and taped Korean shows, drinking her grandchildren’s Mountain Dew (“It’s water from the mountain,” Anne explains), and teaching them how to play hwatu so that she might have some worthy competition. She also takes Anne and David on walks in the woods, often a few paces ahead of them with her hands clasped behind her back in true ajumma fashion, or with David side-by-side, guiding each other’s path through the brush.

Amid US fascination with Asian and Asian American capital and excessive displays of wealth, as seen in Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and reality television shows like House of Ho (2020) and Bling Empire (2020), Minari offers a quieter, less spectacular grandeur. The film is comforting, at times jarringly so, especially for those of us who might recognize ourselves and our relatives in Jacob’s slow gait, Monica’s discerning gaze, or Soonja’s soft snore. Yet the warm glow that emanates from the lush green imagery captured by Lachlan Milne’s cinematography and the hazy, meandering score by Emile Mosseri offers more than what some critics have described as a soothing balm sorely needed in the present. There is something else in that recognition, which cannot just be chalked up to the affirmation of identity and authenticity. There is a lingering, hushed quality in Chung’s attention to the mundane routines of family and home, an awareness bound to the ways gender tensely moves through the film as it grapples with intergenerationality, language and translation, diasporic longing, and labor. Divisions between farmwork and housework, men’s work and women’s work, adult’s work and child’s play, are not explained away as merely “cultural,” nor is the family’s ability to endure and overcome hardship mythologized in terms of the so-called American dream and immigrant story. Some will regard the film as autobiographical, with David as Chung’s counterpart, but Chung has resisted this framing for the ways it assumes that he, as an Asian American filmmaker, can only tell his own story. Although it may seem like the film’s focus is Jacob and his work seen through David’s eyes, it is Minari’s purposively insular, private scenes of feminized labor that offer its most magnetic, ineffable moments.

The historic dearth of roles available to Asian American actors meant that Yuen drew his inspiration from unlikely figures. In an interview with Cathy Park Hong, he says that instead of modeling Jacob after an ajeossi, or his own father, he modeled him after James Dean. Yuen inhabits Jacob with brooding, melancholic masculinity and a nonconformist streak, issuing, perhaps, from a disinterest in assimilating and adhering to the “model minority” myth during the Reagan years, in the wake of the Korean War and post-1965 immigration. At the same time, his vision’s attendant loneliness, isolation, and insularity become a burden Anne and Monica—the latter of whom yearns for the community and kinship she found in the Korean churches in California—must bear in their roles as mother and big sister.

On one of Soonja’s walks with Anne and David, they go out further than usual. “We shouldn’t be so far out here,” Anne says. Soonja insists that they keep going, until they arrive at a clearing by a creek. Looking around, she decides it would be a good place to plant the minari seeds she brought from Korea. A watercress used in Korean dishes, the plant is unknown to David and Anne (“stupid Americans,” Soonja chides). It takes root not on the farm but in the land’s wilder, overgrown parts, left to what the new terrain offers. In this scene, Anne stays at the edge of the clearing out of caution, worrying for David and her grandma, threatening to tell her mom that David ventured where he’s not supposed to go because there are snakes, and because the closest hospital is an hour away. Soonja and David both ignore her, and as their relationship flourishes throughout the film into one of mischievous conspiracy, Anne must continue to be the one who keeps watch, from a distance.

What lies under the surface of Monica and Anne’s composed, careful expressions and gestures is the quiet exhaustion that comes from working, doing chores, and getting tasks done. Chung shows this without ennobling these characters for the sake of a sentimentality that would reduce them to their silent suffering as women. Rather, we are left to wonder what it is that Anne daydreams about while burning bags of trash in a steel can, or what Monica absentmindedly wishes for as she practices sorting baby chicks at home while listening to Christian hymns. These moments stoke an ambiguous feeling that mostly drifts at the film’s edges, like where the mind wanders when one is homesick, bored, or lonely. Such aching, opaque scenes loosen the hold of totalizing narrative conventions of the “immigrant story” and Asian American autobiography, so frequently expected to validate the empathy of white viewers.

Following a devastating accident on the farm in the film’s third act, we are given an image of the family at rest. Early in the morning, Jacob, Monica, Anne, and David sleep on the living room floor, with Soonja watching over them from the dining table. Before, Monica and Anne seemed like onlookers from afar, but here we see them enfolded and held, yet still elusive in deep sleep. They lie together, their bodies in a row, some on their backs and others on their sides, chests slowly rising and falling, with arms outstretched, laid out to touch each other in a braided hold.

— Summer Kim Lee

Minari will be released theatrically and in virtual cinemas on February 12.