Minari is an American-made film produced by Brad Pitt about an immigrant family living in the Ozarks chasing the ‘American Dream’, but for one reason or another (my bet is a lack of faith in the American people’s ability to read subtitles) it was ineligible for the Best Picture nomination for the upcoming Golden Globes. Lulu Wang’s Independent Spirit Award-winning The Farewell faced similar issues last year with categorisation for the Globes, as films must reach an English language threshold of 50% spoken dialogue lest they be thrown into the Foreign Language category that doesn’t have accompanying awards for actors in lead or supporting roles. Perhaps it was assumed, after some outrage from the public and the fact that the Academy Awards gave last year’s top honour to Parasite, that the folks at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association would have learned their lesson.
Nevertheless, it’s at least encouraging to see that more diverse perspectives are getting the platform and praise they deserve. Minari is directed by Lee Isaac Chung and is essentially a reimagining of his family’s move from Denver to Arkansas to set up a farm, a story he wasn’t sure his parents wanted told but that resulted in more open conversations in his family after its release. The film originally screened at Sundance in 2020 and won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, so the hype was real.
Steven Yeun, whose frightening turn in 2018’s Burning made me question whether his fluffy Conan interviews were figments of my imagination, stars as Jacob Yi – a dreamer based on Chung’s own father who moves his family from California to a rural plot of Arkansas hoping to sell his crops to other Korean immigrants who miss good food. His long-suffering wife Monica (Yeri Han) is less than pleased with their new home-on-wheels, and worries for their young son David (the cutest movie child I’ve seen in awhile) because of his heart murmur and their distance from a hospital. Monica invites her mother to come live with the family and look after the children during the day, and Grandma brings with her from Korea some simple delights that Monica has very much missed (there is something so endearing about watching a grown woman weep over a massive plastic bag of anchovies and spice mix.) Among this haul are minari seeds, which Grandma plants with David down near a creek. It is a very resilient and useful plant, she explains, and it begins to grow rapidly in the background.
Jacob and Monica work at a chicken-sexing factory for income until they can sell their produce, and there is a great scene where Jacob is trying to convey (in terms appropriate for a child) what happens to the male chicks who ‘have no use.’ He says that he and David must try to be useful in society as males, and this is a theme that runs throughout the film in Jacob’s all-encompassing desire to be successful (sometimes to the detriment of his family.) The feminine influence of Grandma creeps up on the family and is something that no one but Monica seems to be aware of initially. She loves gambling and watching wrestling, and David says that she does not act like a real grandma. But she is also nurturing, adaptive and forgiving without being coddling – she encourages David to run if he wants to run (something doctors have warned could be dangerous for his little heart) and chastises his parents for using corporal punishment on him when he does something very naughty (albeit hilarious) to her. She sees his potential and speaks to him like no adult in his life, and it reminded me of how Fred Rogers was able to communicate with children in a way that respects their individuality and capability to understand big concepts.
I was surprised by the film’s restraint in portraying subtle racism – the few characters who say ignorant things do still accept the family into the community and treat them as they would any other Americans, especially their neighbour Paul (played with empathy and depth by Will Patton), a strangely unproblematic evangelical man who often helps out on the Yi farm and carries a giant cross on his back all the way up the street on Sundays. He reminded me of our neighbour from across the stairwell; Pete, if you ever end up reading this, we appreciate you taking out the bins and patching the chips we’ve made in the paint.
I couldn’t help but compare Minari to The Farewell primarily due to its characters’ connections to the matriarch of the family, and initially I wasn’t quite as emotionally affected by this film as I was by the latter. The premise of The Farewell ensures that the viewer has heightened emotions from the beginning, and I felt in tune with everything for the entirety of that film. In Minari, it’s quietly growing from the beginning (like a resilient water-based weed) but I just didn’t realise it. The pieces had been expertly put into place so that when the story reached its crescendo, I felt a real sense of being punched in the stomach. I don’t want to imply that something horrible or tragic happens because it doesn’t – the obstacles we witness during the window of time we’re given aren’t extraordinary for farm life – but it’s been a while since a film has been able to creep up on me like this without me realising what it’s doing (that’s not me tooting my own horn by the way, I’m just very attuned to when I’m about to cry most of the time.) I found Minari incredibly moving and well-written, and I think anyone with an emotional register will enjoy it. (8/10)