February 18, 2021

Film

Small glories: ‘Minari’

By Michael Sun

Image courtesy A24

Childhood memories are suffused with an adult’s insight in Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film

There’s an old cupboard in my parents’ house, tucked away behind a jungle of dining furniture. In it: some cameras from the 1980s, now in disrepair but unable to be donated (for sentimental reasons or sheer indifference); mismatched cases for said cameras; piles of loose bank statements; a photo album bound in faded leather.

Its position amid the debris tells you all there is to know about the album’s significance, and yet, mysteriously, it often finds its way onto a more conspicuous surface: the seat of a chair that was occupied mere seconds ago, or balanced precariously on the edge of a coffee table. Of course, everyone in my family denies responsibility for magicking the album into appearance. Call it a sign from above.

The important memories – McDonald’s birthdays, awkward graduation pictures – are held elsewhere, archived with a collector’s precision. This one is just B-sides. A shot of the Opera House, taken the year we moved here from China, finger squashed against lens. A messy bedroom in our first apartment, strewn with moving boxes and little else. Blur, light leak, more blur. They’re – dare I say it – liminal moments, between the milestones in other albums, but they carry a strange nostalgia anyway. An illusory feeling, sure (I’m too young, and far too forgetful, to remember the moments recorded in most of these photos), but no less intense in its evocation of a specific warmth towards a rose-coloured version of the past.

That same warmth radiates through Minari (in cinemas February 18), writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s chronicle of the Korean–American Yi family who, after a decade spent toiling in Californian chicken hatcheries, pack up to seek out something grander in rural Arkansas, something closer to that feted – fated – American Dream. Father Jacob (Steven Yeun, living up to his reputation as one of contemporary cinema’s most interesting actors) is the impetus behind the family’s move, a necessary inconvenience in his quest to open a self-sustaining Korean vegetable farm to service the budding diasporic communities in the region. His wife, Monica (Yeri Han), isn’t so sure. Was California really that bad? Plus, they have the kids to worry about: the steadfast Anne (Noel Cho) and the impossibly puckish David (newcomer Alan S. Kim), who leaps towards the new abode with all the enthusiasm of a child seeing a mobile house – on wheels, no less – for the first time.

Set in the ’80s with dialogue mostly in Korean, Minari is a story of immigrants, but make no mistake – this is certainly not an Immigrant Story, the kind defined by clear-cut morals, and so ubiquitous as to have generated its own neatly compartmentalised tropes and cheap takeaways. Like: Racism is bad (who knew?). Or: Look at these people! How noble they are, how similar to us! There are no grand gestures of protest here; the political byproducts inherent to the film’s location, both in geography and in time, are dialled down to a murmur – a mutter of Reagan here, a casually racist remark there, swiftly swept under a rug of pleasantries before they’ve even landed.

Indeed, the whole film, even through tragedy and struggle, unravels in this murmured state, the intentional whisper of a story that’s too personal to shout from the rooftops, as if doing so might dishonour its subjects. Minari is semi-autobiographical, after all, collecting Chung’s half-remembered fragments from childhood – with young David as his onscreen counterpart – and suffusing them with an adult’s insight. Just because he might not recall all of it doesn’t mean the feeling isn’t there.

Minari is drenched in the kind of honeyed hue that evokes the lightness of memory, elevating ordinary events to nostalgic signifiers of an “easier” time, where people were unburdened by current pressures. It helps, too, that Chung and cinematographer Lachlan Milne wield a Malick-esque reverence for the bucolic. The haloed glow around blades of grass shivering in the breeze, or an insect buzzing in dappled sunlight can often approach something like the divine – their 50-acre plot is a “Garden of Eden”, Jacob says.

Our knowledge that these moments are ephemeral – and often refracted through Jacob’s blinkered ambition, or David’s guileless curiosity – only makes them sweeter, before we must return to the quotidian pressure of what it means to hinge your entire livelihood on what is, essentially, an agrarian experiment. As Jacob forges forward with his plan, wringing dry both money and sympathies, it’s Monica who is left to resolve the repercussions. They argue, often about money and always from other rooms. The content of their quarrels isn’t as important as the echoes they send around their house-on-wheels, prompting their children to launch paper planes into their midst emblazoned with big letters: “DON’T FIGHT”.

In a tight-lipped compromise, grandma (Youn Yuh-Jung) is flown in from Korea to stay with the family, setting off the summer that was. “She isn’t like a real grandma,” David gripes, balking at her “Korea smell” and her inability to bake cookies. Instead, she’s lewd, crude, and loves gambling and WWE re-runs. She’s the perfect antidote to David’s precociousness, even if he doesn’t realise it.

It’s also grandma who gives Minari its title, referring to a parsley-ish herb native to East Asia that she ferries across the Pacific to plant by a lake just down from the farm. “It grows anywhere, like weeds,” she explains. “Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy.” In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the metaphor would seem heavy-handed, but Chung creates something wondrous here: rather than extolling the virtues of such an egalitarian plant, he turns it into a joking bedtime lullaby. “Minari, minari, wonderful, wonderful,” the song goes, soothing both grandma and grandson to sleep. When the herb returns in the closing shot, weighted now with symbolic consequence, it feels earned, like most things in the film.

Much like Chung’s avoidance of the minari as an obvious metaphor, the movie itself gradually shifts away from its well-trodden origins as an evisceration of the American Dream to become a different beast entirely. The pitfalls of that dream are still there – just look at the increasingly world-weary Jacob, still sporting the red baseball cap and flannel shirt of someone cosplaying a Midwestern farmer – but Chung is cognisant that it’s only one type of misplaced faith in a movie full of them. Faith in religion, faith in tradition, faith that everything will turn out okay, even if all evidence points to the opposite. Maybe, Chung suggests, faith in each other is all we have.

That Minari has been universally lauded, first winning the highest prize at its Sundance premiere in 2020 and now up for a procession of awards, including mounting Oscar buzz, is a welcome surprise, though one can’t help but wonder if it’s a wry victory in an industry so beleaguered by simplistic understandings of race that it heralds every new, non-white voice as the voice, singular, of their community.

Asian–American poet and critic Cathy Park Hong, in her recent essay collection Minor Feelings, asks: “Will there be a future where I, on the page, am simply I, on the page, and not I, proxy for a whole ethnicity, imploring you to believe we are human beings who feel pain?” Minari seems to ask the same question, maybe not so directly, through its inherent specificity – its melange of hazy memories that could only belong to one person. Like flicking through an album of discarded moments, it reminds us of the small glories we may ascribe to our lives, imagined or otherwise.

Michael Sun

Michael Sun is a film and music writer from Sydney whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, ABC Arts and VICE.

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